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The dangers of hollow populism and tired stereotypes when talking about immigration

"One Nation" Labour has to find a way to challenge right-wing narratives on immigration and multiculturalism.

Athletes Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah
After the successes of London 2012, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah have become the new face of the UK's multicultural society. Photograph: Getty Images

When a politician makes a speech, he or she (or rather, his or her press team) trails it to the press, knowing that only a tiny minority of the general public will actually pay attention to the fine detail. The way in which the speech is sold to the press sets the agenda, and sets the way in which the topic will subsequently be viewed.

In that respect, the way Ed Miliband’s imminent speech on “integration” has been spun this morning is disappointing, to say the least. “Every Briton”, we are told, “should speak English”. Moreover, this is a key part of Miliband’s “One Nation” vision for Britain. He wants a “connected nation” rather than a “segregated one”.

I doubt you’d find a politician – or, indeed a member of the public – who’d say they didn’t want those things. But is this anything more than the kind of hollow populism Miliband’s Labour colleague Barry Sheerman demonstrated earlier this year?

It’s encouraging that Miliband says “people can be proudly, patriotically British without abandoning their cultural roots and distinctiveness.”

But the focus is on the immigrants themselves, and appears to cast them as the “problem”:

There is another idea we should also reject: the belief that people can simply live side by side in their own communities, respecting each other but living separate lives, protected from hatreds but never building a common bond – never learning to appreciate one another. We cannot be comfortable with separation. It blocks opportunities, leaving people at the margins. And it breeds ignorance, suspicion and prejudice.

Do people “simply live side by side in their own communities”? Is that an accurate portrayal of Britain in 2012? The latest census results would suggest that the trend is already towards more integration, not less. And that last sentence appears to follow in an ignoble Labour tradition, well-established since the 2001 riots (as I describe here) of blaming immigrants for their own experience of racism. As the community activist and writer Symeon Brown pointed out on Twitter this morning,

Miliband raises the spectre of the far right – well, what the rise and fall of the BNP should teach us is that integration was never only about immigrants. Here, voting for the BNP, or joining the EDL on its marches, was a section of white British people who also felt so excluded from mainstream society that they turned towards fascism. Any “integration” strategy must address this too.

As for the vague policy details that have been released, more funding for English language teaching is promised, but only in return for deprioritising written translation materials, and a requirement that publicly-funded jobs which involve contact with members of the public are given only to those who can speak English. This strikes me as an attempt to bully people into learning the language, rather than giving them support and encouragement. Why not, for example, propose that anyone given a publicly-funded job is given the option of full training in English language skills, rather than just being barred from taking up work?

It is encouraging that – finally – someone is addressing the chronic underfunding of English-language teaching. And there is an argument that some private contractors have been able to exploit workers’ lack of English skills. The spin, however, seems designed to align with widely circulated prejudices against immigrants, rather than challenge them.

But let’s wait and see. Perhaps Miliband’s speech today will not be a rehash of tired stereotypes. Perhaps he’ll promise a crackdown on exploitative employment practices and apologise for being a member of the government that cut funding for English-language teaching in the first place (PDF). Perhaps he’ll declare, bravely, that the stereotype of the immigrant who doesn’t want to learn English, who doesn’t want to “integrate” is as wrong and damaging as George Osborne’s stereotype of the benefit claimant who spends all day in bed with the curtains closed while his or her hard-working neighbour does a day of hard graft.

If "One Nation" Labour fails to challenge the dominant right-wing narratives on such vital issues as our multicultural society, the welfare state, and austerity economics, then it is a dead political project.

So go on, surprise us.