Should Labour become the “anti-immigration party”? Absolutely not

David Goodhart is wrong -- and so was New Labour.

In the days since Labour's election defeat, various ex-ministers have stepped forward to offer their thoughts on where the party went astray. Immigration has cropped up time and time again.

All three potential leadership candidates -- David Miliband, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls -- have said that Labour should have done more to address voters' concerns about immigration. Writing in the Guardian, the former communities secretary John Denham correctly linked the issue to New Labour's embrace of neoliberal economics:

Dependence on the financial sector was not only unsustainable; it created an economy that simply didn't offer much to too many people. It produced a labour market that, for millions, brought stagnating incomes, insecurity and reduced pension rights. The same labour market demanded mass immigration, which, in too many places, increased competition for jobs, housing and public services, in ways that, again, seemed unfair.

Yet, with the notable exception of Jon Cruddas, Labour grandees have chosen to focus on the second part of this equation. If voters felt that immigration was "unfair", then they were right to do so, goes the received wisdom. On Saturday, Ed Miliband told the Fabian conference:

Immigration is a class issue. If you want to employ a builder it's good to have people you can take on at lower cost, but if you are a builder it feels like a threat to your livelihood.

Now, these voices inside the party have been joined by David Goodhart, editor of Prospect magazine, who argues that Labour should now become the "anti-immigration party":

Labour can be proud that since the 1950s it . . . has championed the cause of race equality and stood up for immigrants. It should continue to do so, but not in a way that conflicts with the economic and cultural interests of the British mainstream.

But does immigration really conflict with "British interests"? Let's take the economic argument first. Goodhart rightly says that "social democracy and a generous welfare state cannot survive in the long run unless there is a strong sense of a common life, of shared cultural references and experience". To blame this on immigration, however, is to take the symptom as the cause.

Thinking dangerously

As the historian Tony Judt has argued, the threat to social democracy has come from the inequality wrought by free-market policies.

If migrants coming to Britain in 2010 find that they are entering a country where people fear for their jobs and are ready to blame their misfortunes on the new faces who have moved into the street, then the actions of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown are at root.

A failure to recognise this leads Goodhart to pursue an even more dangerous line of reasoning:

There was quite a direct and open debate about mass immigration in the course of the election campaign (it featured in all three of the party leader debates) and the BNP was crushed -- suggesting that when Labour organises and addresses the legitimate grievances of the disaffected, people will return to mainstream parties.

This idea that the spectacle of party leaders competing with each other to sound tough on immigration helped the fight against the BNP is simply wrong. Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking, tried this kind of intolerant rhetoric before the local elections in 2006 -- and was rewarded with an unprecedented number of BNP seats on Barking and Dagenham Council.

As the social statistician Ludi Simpson pointed out in a piece I wrote last month, Barking has experienced a relatively low level of immigration compared to the rest of London. And nationally, support for the BNP is strongest in areas with low, rather than high, numbers of immigrants.

If there is no "strong sense of common life" in Stoke-on-Trent, another BNP stronghold, then the reason lies in the destruction of its old industries -- mining and pottery -- rather than "competition" for jobs between white people and the city's small Asian population.

In fact, over 13 years in power, New Labour's rhetoric on immigration -- combined with the virulent xenophobia of the tabloid press -- has gifted the BNP with fertile ground on which to cultivate support. As Gary Younge argued last October, the party's instinctive response has been to support the perception of immigrants as a threat, a view that Goodhart reinforces with his comment about the "cultural interests of the British mainstream".

Goodhart's second line of argument -- that immigration leads to a culture that is simply too diverse -- is a case he has made over and over again. In an interview with Cruddas, conducted just before the election, he suggested that Nigeran immigrants do not participate in a shared culture with native Britons because they are all "probably watching Nigerian telly".

Aside from the fact that "Nigerian telly" is as likely to be showing the latest Man U or Arsenal matches as your local Walkabout pub, this line of argument makes one wonder what kind of culture Goodhart thinks he lives in. It certainly isn't the case in Dagenham, where the interview took place.

The campaign against the BNP in Barking and Dagenham -- one of the few success stories for the left in this election -- drew in Londoners of all backgrounds, while voters there overwhelmingly endorsed Labour's slate of council candidates, a list that notably included local people of black British and African origin.

Loaded discussion

The truth is that there is a series of measures Labour could have adopted that would have benefited both new arrivals and long-term residents. When Gordon Brown gave what we now know as his farewell speech to the Citizens UK organisation on 3 May, he addressed an audience of people who have campaigned tirelessly for a living wage that would apply to all workers in Britain, regardless of origin.

If only some of the passion Brown expressed for social justice had been directed at his enemies on the right.

Ed Miliband got it right when he said that immigration is a "class issue", just not in the sense he meant. Class is the one thing New Labour proved itself unable to talk about, except when it appeared in racially loaded discussions about the "white working class". The reason for this blind spot is that much of what the party did in government favoured business interests at the expense of ordinary people.

The recent post-election statement by Compass has gone some way towards recognising Labour's failings on this front; whether that takes hold in the party at large remains to be seen.

Five million voters have deserted Labour since 1997. The exodus began well before we opened our borders to eastern Europe -- responsible for the bulk of recent immigration -- in 2004. The way to win back voters is not by targeting those people who travel here to work for crappy wages cleaning crumbs from the tables of the rich.

If that's the kind of culture Goodhart and recalcitrant ex-ministers want to defend, frankly they're welcome to it. Just let the rest of us get on with building a more tolerant and just society.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear