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.
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.
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.