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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage