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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.