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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder