Immigration is back

Underneath the tactical manoeuvring, the differences in this area between Labour and the Tories are

Despite voter concern about immigration falling to its lowest level in nine years, immigration is back as both political box office and political football.

The escalating problem of irregular migration from the Arab spring is reopening old arguments over "burden-sharing" in Europe, which Nick Clegg was dragged into on Tuesday. Back home David Cameron, having gone quiet on immigration over the winter, returned to the issue aggressively during the local elections.

Conservatives have often banged the immigration drum during a campaign, only to put it away once its job is done. But this time Cameron is likely to keep up the focus, taking a risk on a bit more Lib Dem unhappiness, in order to enjoy an ongoing political dividend.

The manner in which sensitive proposals on restricting family and marriage visas were trailed on Monday looks like an early sign of the tactics urged on Cameron by Tim Montgomerie (following Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher) of picking "big, defining fights on popular projects" such as immigration as the best way of avoiding his agenda being defined entirely by the spending cuts.

It also offers an ideal sop to the Conservative right, along with continuing to yoke the immigration cap to welfare reform – two of the Tory right's favourite coalition policies.

Labour, meanwhile, knows it can't avoid immigration for ever, and a bolder approach now could begin to detoxify the issue for it, tackling continued resentment among southern voters over Labour's record. Ed Miliband's wider strategy on the "squeezed middle" and the Blue Labour agenda provide him with new ways of talking about immigration that are more constructive than just saying, "Sorry, we let too many in."

Underneath the tactical manoeuvring, there is actually less polarisation in the two main parties' broad strategy on immigration than in previous years. In the four decades to the 2005 election, Labour was seen as basically pro-immigration, Conservatives basically anti. Since then, both have tried to shed those old images, and are competing to be identified with the centre ground: roughly, pro-immigration-but-less-of-it, a more balanced approach that is now routinely applied to the social and cultural as well as the economic aspects of immigration. Ed Miliband is continuing on these lines, and it must remain Cameron's preferred strategy, too – as well as his best chance of preserving coalition unity.

There are three main battlegrounds in the campaign to win the centre: overall numbers, the economy and culture. On the numbers, both parties have flagship policies with the same basic objective: more quality, less quantity. Labour's version, the points-based system, is more realistic about the nature of migration flows, the workings of the immigration system and the needs of the economy. In contrast, the Tories' cap is crude but easy to explain, and on an issue where trust has disappeared, this has so far proved decisive.

On the economy, Labour needs to win the argument again about immigration's contribution to overall growth and extend that argument to reducing the deficit. The pro-immigration line on the economy had a damaging air of complacency in recent years, but the evidence remains basically sound. The more radical debate is over the role of immigration in the complex dynamic at the lower end of the labour market.

Cameron's argument here is that if we reduce immigration while at the same time making it harder to live on benefits, this will shift large numbers of people from welfare to work. Miliband's argument, though less clearly put, seems to be that if wages and conditions improve, the result will be simultaneously to reduce the demand for low-paid migrants (at present the only ones willing to do some of these jobs) and to shift people from welfare to work, but by making work more attractive, rather than making living on benefits harder. Both arguments present low-skill immigration as a symptom of our real problems – welfare for the Tories, wage stagnation for Labour – rather than the cause.

On the final battleground of culture, the target is the voters identified in the recent Fear and Hope report as neither relaxed about immigration nor implacably opposed to it. For Miliband, the emergence of Blue Labour will help him keep his party's debate focused on this centre ground.

The Conservatives have a headstart here, but this could be undermined by two factors pushing them towards a more polarised position: the neocon approach of Michael Gove and others – evident in the more confrontational passages of Cameron's Munich speech – and the desire to perpetuate anger against Labour by talking up the problems of integration, rather than doing anything to solve them.

On all three battlegrounds – numbers, the economy and culture – narrative will be more important than policy or statistics. The Tories start with a clear advantage, but their narrative may become increasingly frayed by coalition dynamics, the realities of government, and an inability to control their instincts tugging them off to the right. Labour meanwhile has the makings of an alternative story, but it is a long way from being fully fleshed out.

All in all, the debate might be more interesting over the coming year than the cynics think.

Matt Cavanagh is associate director at IPPR.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser