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 Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.