Let's talk about immigration

Because we never do, do we?

Perhaps the most clichéd line one comes across in the intersecting worlds of politics and journalism is that immigration is "the subject no politician wants to talk about".

It's not just inaccurate but annoying. And it's most annoying when, in the midst of a discussion about immigration, a participant claims, with a straight face: ""We just don't talk about immigration." Doh!

As I noted in a Guardian piece during the election campaign last April:

The opening question of the first leaders' debate in British political history was on the subject of -- wait for it! -- immigration.

And, as I pointed out on Channel 4's 10 O'Clock Live programme last night, the newspapers, led by the Mail and the Express, talk of little else -- witness this morning's cover story in the Express:

£250 a week for every migrant

As for politicians, here's a short selection of some of the most egregious, hyperbolic and populist remarks made in relation to immigration and immigrants by leading Conservative and Labour figures in recent years:

Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land -- to Britain after a second term of Tony Blair.

- William Hague's speech to the Conservative Spring Forum in March 2001

Whilst they're going through the process, the children [of asylum seekers] will be educated on the site . . . but importantly not swamping the local school.

- David Blunkett, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in April 2002

It's not racist to impose limits on immigration

- Michael Howard's 2005 election poster, under the headline, "Are you thinking what we are thinking?"

Our [immigration] system is not fit for purpose.

- John Reid, speaking in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, May 2006

Adopt our values or stay away, says Blair

- Telegraph headline, in response to Tony Blair's speech in December 2006, telling immigrants that they had ''a duty" to integrate

. . . drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers.

- Gordon Brown's first Labour conference speech as leader of the party in September 2007

I was in Plymouth recently and a 40-year-old black man . . . said, "I came here when I was six, I've served in the Royal Navy for 30 years . . . but I'm so ashamed that we've had this out-of-control system with people abusing it so badly."

- David Cameron, speaking in the first televised leaders' debate in April 2010

 

These are just a small sample, off the top of my head (and don't even get me started on Phil Woolas). There are many more such examples of British politicians using ramped-up rhetoric about immigrants and immigration to fear-monger, distract and/or impress Paul Dacre. I stand by what I said on the telly last night: those people who claim that talk of immigration is "suppressed" and demand a "debate" on immigration tend to be people who hold rather negative, hostile and ill-informed views on the subject. I've yet to come across people who say: "We have to have a debate about immigration because it's so good."

But feel free to prove me wrong below the line. Ready, steady, go . . .

 

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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.