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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder