A clear and present peril

Immigration has become the new fault line cutting across the British political landscape.

Race, class, economics, law and order, foreign affairs, religion, education, employment, community cohesion, social identity: sooner or later every major political issue is channelled through the prism of immigration. And as it refracts, so it is subtly redefined.

The immigration debate itself is, of course, not new. From the Windrush generation of the 1950s, through the radical social realignment of the '60s, the far-right backlash and anti-fascist fight-back of the '70s, the Thatcherite neo-nationalism of the '80s and the Cool Britannia patriotic reclamation of the '90s, immigration and race have always occupied a prominent place on the political agenda. However, in the past they have existed either as self-contained issues or as a subset of a wider political discourse. Never -- at least not in my lifetime -- has immigration had such a dominant or pervasive hold over every strand of our national politics.

Increasing voter concern

At the time of the 1997 election, MORI's Issue Tracker recorded those citing race or immigration as the most important issue facing the nation at 3 per cent. By last May's election, it was 38 per cent. In 1997, the British National Party (BNP) put up 54 candidates and secured 36,000 votes, at an average of 664 votes per candidate. In 2010, 339 BNP candidates obtained more than half a million votes, at an average of 1,663 votes per candidate. A YouGov poll taken in March found that 69 per cent of those questioned believed Labour's management of immigration had been bad for the country, compared to 21 per cent who thought it had been beneficial.

Immigration, the elephant in the room? Not any more. Now it's parading down the high street, garlanded in ribbons, leading a three-ring circus.
This detonation over migration has shaken both left and right. For the Conservatives, who had long seen the issue as a licence to print votes, the increase in support for the BNP has presented a serious political problem, akin to UKIP in bovver boots. It has also generated a wider debate within David Cameron's inner circle about whether tough lines on immigration cut across the 'New Tory' brand, a debate heightened by the awareness that both William Hague and Michael Howard, when they were Tory leader, ran hard on the issue, to little tangible benefit. To be fair, there's also a generational shift taking place within the Conservative Party, with a number of younger MPs and members looking to put distance between themselves and the legacy of Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' and Tebbit's 'Cricket Test'.

For the left, the issues thrown up are even more challenging. We're now confronted with a need to reassess old certainties on three fronts: political, economic and cultural.

Past failures

Politically, our response has been disastrous. Immigration had been seen as just another issue to triangulate. Attack the BNP, whilst co-opting their language; criticise Tory dog whistles as we blow trumpets about "British jobs for British workers"; pay lip service to the 'white working class', then thrust them to the margins in pursuit of votes from the citizens of a middle-English Shangri-La. The immigration genie burst from its box on Labour's watch. And we must adopt a radically different political posture if we're going to get it back in again.

On an economic and policy level, we've also been chasing shadows. On the Labour leadership debate shown on Channel 4 News in September, the candidates were asked the patsy question, "has there been too much immigration?" They trotted out their responses, each pitching to their constituencies. But it's a false question, without a tangible answer. Because we don't have an immigration problem - we have an immigration management problem.

What is a sensible limit? 1,000, 10,000, 100,000? The numbers are an abstraction. Yes, we need controls on migration. But whatever the figure, what really matters is our capacity at a national, regional and community level to manage the migratory shifts that do occur. A net increase of 1,000 migrants is nationally insignificant. But if those migrants settle in a single location, within a community that has little or no experience of external migration, with no flexibility in its capacity to provide housing, employment, education and other social services, then that's a recipe for trouble.

Perversely, Labour's broader policy agenda has cut right across this imperative. At the macro-economic level we've been using migration to introduce a covert 21st century incomes policy. Our housing policy has vainly relied on the market to follow migratory patterns, instead of allowing the state to predict, plan and build around those patterns. Our failure to tackle the legacy of de-industrialisation, fused with the globalisation of employment markets, is creating a battleground between domestic and migrant labour. Again, these are policy legacies of both Tory and Labour governments. And again, we need to construct a programme for integrating migration policy, as well as moulding migration into a wider progressive socio-economic narrative.

But perhaps the biggest challenge we face on the left is cultural. How can we reconcile our progressive instincts with the demand from elements of our working class base to directly confront the inverse inequalities in housing, employment and education that immigration is perceived to have generated? Because there is no mileage in pretending any longer that those demands aren't being made.

New opportunities

My own view is that we must view this challenge not as a threat but as an opportunity. Until recently, Labour's working class base was politically marginalised. Now there is a consensus across the party that this support can no longer be taken for granted. While immigration is seen right now to lie at the heart of white working class concerns, if we can deconstruct the issue into its component parts -- job creation, quality education for all, affordable housing - we have the first outlines of a new and exciting political agenda.

We can also seize the organisational opportunities. The threat posed by the BNP has mobilised our activist base like no other issue since we entered government. The organising model pioneered by the Hope Not Hate campaign, which routed Nick Griffin and his party at the general and local elections, provides the perfect blueprint for revitalising our own party structures.

But perhaps most crucially, the immigration debate provides the opportunity to construct new progressive alliances, and reach across what is essentially an artificial divide. In my own Dagenham constituency, the migratory patterns of African families are precisely mirroring the migratory patterns of 50 or 60 years before, when white working class families moved out of inner East London.

They have a strong belief in education, advancement and aspiration. There aren't anti-social behavior problems or issues of neighborhood nuisance. They bring strong faith traditions with them, in exactly the way that people nostalgically remember their own migration here 50 years ago. And, as we saw locally, when the community was forced to face up to the challenge presented by the BNP then similarity and commonality were thrown into focus just as sharply as any difference.

Of course, the challenges surrounding immigration policy are significant. The BNP's implosion provides some breathing space but does not represent a cessation of hostilities. The Coalition's cuts agenda will further strain the social fabric. A Labour Party coming to terms with opposition for the first time in over a decade will have its missteps as it sets out on a new political journey.

But at least the fault line running through British politics is a clear one. The perils are out in the open, not lurking beneath the surface. We have the tools to bridge the divide. All that's needed are the wisdom and courage to use them.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham and Rainham and founded the All Party Parliamentary group on Migration. This essay is included in a collection of essays published by ippr called "Immigration under Labour" which is available for download here.

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

Getty
Show Hide image

“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.