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.

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.

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

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Boris Johnson's "juddering climax"? Don't let it distract you from his record as mayor

As Johnson finishes his term as mayor of London, his own parting shot leaves this mole feeling cold.

Initially, the feeling down here in the Mole townhouse was that Boris Johnson's "Operation Juddering Climax" tweet wasn't worth giving airtime to.
 

After all: it's an attention-seeking device as old as the hills. Sex sells; unfortunately, so does the soon-to-be-former Mayor's brand of weird bombast. So it's not surprising some press officer realised if you can get the voters to imagine Johnson in gaudens (see, Boris, bit of Latin for you there!), they'll get distracted. At the very least, it'll rechannel their disgust so they're not thinking about the fact he's a man whose past achievements include such gems as calling black people “picanninies” and, recently, suggesting “part-Kenyan” Barack Obama may have an “ancestral dislike” of the British empire.

Like a dead cat, once the possibility of an active penis is on the table people tend to get distracted.

So yes, reading Johnson's account yesterday did feel a little like supervising a class of fourth-formers who have just discovered euphemism and can't stop slipping it into their answers in class, continuing long after it stops being funny, massive shit-eating grins on their faces all the time. The temptation is always to ignore it, in the hope they'll get bored with their own supposed cleverness.

But it's actually more sinister than that. Because when Boris pulls this sort of sniggering schoolboy rhetoric out about the "climax" of his mayoralty, what he's actually doing is urging you to forget the stray pube of his water cannon, the crumpled tissue of his awful, boiling buses and the crusty sock which is his environmental legacy.

Well, here at the NS we believe a gentleman should always offer to sleep in the wet patch. So here, as a parting gift of sorts, is a short selection of some things you might remember Boris for:

The bus stock whose internal temperature “breaches legal limits for livestock”

Championed the contentious Garden Bridge

Installed a cable car that is used by fewer passengers than London’s, er, 400 busiest bus routes

Abused his planning power in the mayoral office in what the Guardian called “an assault on democracy”

Spend over £200,000 on two second hand water cannon from Germany – which he’s not allowed to use

That's that done. This mole's off for a cigarette.

I'm a mole, innit.