The underground would be filthy - 95 per cent of London Underground cleaning staff are foreign-born. Photograph: Getty Images
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Without immigrants, our country wouldn’t function. So let’s give it a go...

Fancy Ukip’s oh-so-reasonable line on the need to save our “out-of-control”, overcrowded, overburdened country? Let’s all try living, just for one day, without immigrants.

I have a modest proposal for the likes of Ukip, MigrationWatch, the Home Secretary, David Goodhart, Paul Dacre and, of course, the BNP. Why not call for “A Day Without Immigrants?” Wouldn’t that demonstrate, once and for all, that neither our economy nor our society needs migrants? That they are a burden, rather than a blessing?

“A Day Without Immigrants” was the name given to a rather innovative series of protests in the US in 2006, which brought more than a million Latinos on to the streets of 50 cities, from New York to Los Angeles. They boycotted shops, schools and their places of work to try to highlight the plight of undocumented migrant workers.

But here’s how I’d implement a similar boycott here: anyone in the UK born abroad or with a parent born abroad would stay at home for 24 hours. Any business or organisation founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant would close for the day.

Britain would be transformed – but, regrettably for the immigration-bashers, in a wholly negative way. In fact, I suspect it would be a pretty awful 24 hours for most Britons, dark and dystopian, even. Think Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later – but without migrants, rather than with zombies.

Let’s start with the trivial stuff. Who would serve you in restaurants or coffee shops? Who would make your sandwiches and wraps at lunchtime? What would be the point of going out to eat in the evening if there were no longer any Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Japanese, Turkish, Lebanese, Persian, Italian, Spanish and, yes, French restaurants open?

How about your health? Who’d patch you up and prescribe your medicines? Ministers and their outriders in the right-wing press like to scaremonger about the spiralling costs of so-called health tourism (which amounts to a shocking 0.01 per cent of the £109bn NHS budget) and exaggerate the numbers of migrant families that turn up expecting free treatment in our overstretched A&E departments. The reality, as the chair of the council of the Royal College of GPs, Dr Clare Gerada, has pointed out, is that “you are much more likely to have an immigrant caring for you than sitting up in front of the emergency department”. About 30 per cent of the doctors and 40 per cent of the nurses working in the health service were born abroad. Put simply, the NHS could not survive 24 hours without its migrant workforce.

The same applies to the social-care sector. If you have a sick parent living in a care home, you might have to take the day off to look after them. In 2009 a fifth of all care assistants and home carers – 135,000 people in total – were foreign-born; in London, 60 per cent of care workers were migrants. Speaking of taking the day off, neither the Deputy Prime Minister nor the leader of the opposition would have to turn up to Westminster for PMQs – Nick Clegg is the son of a Dutch mother and half-Russian father; Ed Miliband is the child of Polish refugees.

Meanwhile, the Chancellor would have to go to the Commons to warn that “A Day Without Immigrants” would, if extended over a year, force him to introduce a further £7bn of spending cuts and/or tax rises. Why? Migrants boost the British economy by £7bn a year, according to an OECD study published in June. That’s the equivalent of an extra 2p on the basic rate of income tax.

Sticking with the economy, we’d have to board up iconic British stores such as Marks & Spencer (co-founder: Michael Marks of Belarus), Selfridges (founder: the American Harry Gordon Selfridge) and Tesco (founder: Jacob Kohen, son of Avram, a Polish migrant). UK holidaymakers would have to cancel their cheap flights on easyJet (founder: the Greekborn Stelios Haji-Ioannou).

Our universities, a multibillion-pound export industry, would take a hit, too, if foreign students stayed away. One in ten students in British universities comes from outside the EU and the fees that students from other countries pay are a bigger source of income for most universities than research grants.

What about sport? Imagine going to watch a Premier League game midweek as a Liverpool fan. Luis Suárez wouldn’t be playing. If you’re a Man United fan, you’d miss out on the ball skills of Robin van Persie; if you’re a Man City fan, it’d be Yaya Touré on strike. Chelsea fans? Say goodbye to Juan Mata and Eden Hazard.

Incidentally, if you were planning on using the Tube to go to watch Chelsea play, you’d find it in a pretty filthy state, the train platforms tagged with graffiti and strewn with rubbish: 95 per cent of London Underground cleaning staff are foreign-born. It wouldn’t just be the District Line that was dirty, it would also be your place of work: 89 per cent of office cleaners in the capital are migrants.

But the countryside would be fine, right? Wrong. Imagine all those unpicked crops and the effect: the rise in food prices, supermarkets opting for (cheaper) foreign over domestic produce, fruit farmers on their knees. The truth is that “native” Brits have not been interested in fruit-picking for years and, as the Home Office’s own Migration Advisory Committee warned in May, many of the UK’s fruit-picking businesses could close without new migrant workers from outside the EU.

On immigration, we hear constantly that voters don’t trust the official statistics or studies (a recent Ipsos MORI poll found that the public thinks that immigrants make up 31 per cent of the population –when the official figure is 13 per cent). So this may be the only way to win hearts and minds. A great boycott. A one-day strike by immigrants and their children across the UK, coupled with a ban on the use of immigrant-founded businesses by the “indigenous” population.

For a mere 24 hours. Let’s do it. And if it doesn’t transform public opinion, well, at least I’ll have had the day off work.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.