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The idiocy of Labour’s immigration populism

The idea that the masses need to be placated by punishing outsiders shows how out of touch Labour ha

One deeply worrying aspect of the Labour leadership battle, for those hoping it will revitalise left-wing politics, is the frequency with which the candidates mention immigration.

Ed Balls suggests the party suffered electorally because people didn't know about its tough points system for migrants. David Miliband says "we were seen to be late to the game" on immigration. Andy Burnham sounds like a BNP leaflet: "People aren't racist, but they say it has increased tension, stopped them getting access to housing and lowered their wages."

It's true that many people have legitimate grievances about their lives -- over access to housing, to healthcare, to good schools, to secure jobs -- for which immigration (if politically manipulated) can become a touchstone. It is also true that all those insecurities have been compounded by New Labour and its obeisance to the market, which failed to provide public housing, polarised access to hospitals and schools under the rubric of "choice", and made call centres and job agencies the first port of call for working-class people trying to work.

In large part as a result of the marketisation of society, as well as the bailout of the financial elite, what we have now is a rapidly shrinking pool of public resources and an increasingly desperate struggle among poor people for access to them.

The cheap labour of some of those people, immigrants, was a key element of New Labour's "economic miracle", yet the state never acknowledged the role they played -- so when times went bad, nobody remembered what they had done to make them good. Instead, Miliband, Balls, Burnham et al seem intent on scapegoating immigrants to distract us from the real causes of hardship.

Not only is this morally contemptible; it's a lie. The lie of such "populism" is that it's not what ordinary people want. The one clear vote in the election (52 per cent of voters) was against Tory austerity and punishment of the poor. The idea that the cretinous masses need to be placated by punishing outsiders shows how out of touch as well as morally tarnished New Labour has become.

People in the real world are far more savvy. My play A Day at the Racists, about a disillusioned white worker drawn to the BNP, generates a constant stream of comments from black, white, brown, working- and middle-class audiences about how they won't fall for divide and rule and immigrant-bashing, how they know who the real villains are (unfortunately for the politicians, the answer to that seems to be . . . the politicians).

For young people especially, who in urban areas now live in a cultural and social melange of mixed heritages, races and accents, the clumsy polarities the Labour candidates are appealing to are something of the past -- exactly the wrong direction for a party crying out for new ideas.

There is now, I believe, a majority of people in Britain wanting a more tolerant, sophisticated and progressive politics than any party is willing to offer them. A Labour Party with an ounce of political nous would grab hold of those people, simply out of political expediency, if nothing else. For Labour instead to shove them back into a divisive, deceptive, anti-immigrant populism is tragic for the welfare of migrants and ordinary people alike -- and remarkably stupid politics.

Anders Lustgarten is a political activist and playwright. His play "A Day at the Racists" will be on tour throughout the UK in the coming months.

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