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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.