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.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.