Kelvin MacKenzie and me

I'm amused to see myself feature in the former Sun editor's latest rant.

I've met Kelvin MacKenzie now on two or three occasions. I've chatted to him on the phone about Andy Coulson. I spent an hour in the green room with him last Sunday, chatting about the Lib Dems, Rupert Murdoch phone-tapping, etc. So I'm surprised he couldn't remember my name; or, if he did, chose not to share it with his readers. I appear in his column only as "the chap from the New Statesman" and "the bloke from the New Statesman". Can the Sun subs not spell "M-e-h-d-i" or "H-a-s-a-n"? I'm also amused that the only other journalist I've ever debated with or spoken to who couldn't remember my name, despite being told twice on air what it was by the presenter, was the Sun's Trevor Kavanagh.

But let's look at the substance of Kelvin's column (and I use the word "substance" rather loosely):

The class war has taken a surprising turn. Here I was in a television studio debating obesity's link to poverty when the chap from the New Statesman turned on me and said: "It's all right for you, shopping at Waitrose." Guilty as charged. I do shop at Waitrose and am now in the strange position of having to defend myself. It's my nearest supermarket and any food retailer will tell you -- thanks to their extensive research -- that no customer wants to travel more than one-and-a-quarter miles to shop. It's why supermarkets build more and more stores. But it's the first time a shop has defined my politics. He may as well have accused me of wearing shoes. Looking at the bloke from the New Statesman, my sense is that on the same basis Lidl may be his regular haunt.

I'm a Tesco man myself, to be honest. I've never shopped in Lidl or, for that matter, Waitrose. But MacKenzie manages to write about Sunday's The Big Questions, on BBC1, without mentioning the context in which I made my remarks about Waitrose. I know that most Sun columnists shy away from facts and figures -- and MacKenzie is no exception -- so let me try to offer some balance. There is a concept known as a "food desert"; in 1996, a British Low Income Project Team defined food deserts as "areas of relative exclusion where people experience physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy foods". In 2008, the Telegraph reported:

The increasing number of suburban supermarkets is creating health problems for those living in inner-city "urban food deserts", according to research.

The proliferation of supermarkets on city outskirts has led to a decline of decent food outlets in the centre, a study published today discloses.

These "food deserts" are said to be affecting the health of the poorer sections of society as well as those without cars, who cannot easily travel to supermarkets.

As for the overall debate about the links between obesity and poverty in this country and abroad, please see this rather insightful CIF piece from last year.

Kelvin continues:

Not since the Eighties have I seen class war so prominent in public life. Bashing bankers, suggesting mansion taxes. Squeezing the rich until the pips squeak is at the centre of the debate.

He's right -- class war is "prominent in public life" and it is indeed like the "Eighties" all over again. Why? Because, as in the 1980s, a Tory-led government of multimillionaires, which is squeezing the poor and the middle classes while appeasing its greedy friends in the City, has declared class war on the rest of us.

Still, nice to appear in the Sun today, as well as the Guardian, and as for being on the end of Kelvin's notorious rants, as a colleague pointed out me a moment ago, being accused of shopping at Lidl is hardly the worst insult he's ever thrown at someone. At least he didn't accuse me of urinating on the dead.

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.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.