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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When the world seems dark and terrifying, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to dream of Utopia

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.

There are many cruel and routine lies we tell to children but perhaps the most indicative is this: if you tell anyone your wish, it won’t come true. This parable was probably invented by parents trying to avoid the trauma of not being able to give their children what they want but we carry it with us to adulthood, when it is repeated to us by our leaders. Don’t tell anyone the sort of world you would like to see – at best you’ll be disappointed and at worst you’ll be arrested.

“We want more.” This week, exhausted by the news, I dragged myself out of the house to a book fair, where I came across a new collection of utopian fiction by radical women. That was the first line and it stopped my breath in my throat. When basic survival seems like a stretch goal, caught as we are between the rich and the rising seas, hope feels like an unaffordable luxury. The precise words I used to the bookseller were, “Shut up and take my money.”

There has never been a more urgent time for utopian ideas, precisely because the concept of a better world has never felt further away. Right now, world leaders are deciding how many cities are going to sink before something is done to reduce carbon emissions. They are meeting in Paris, which very recently saw the opening scene of a new act in everyone’s least favourite dramatic franchise, “War in the Middle East”. We seem to be living in a dystopian trilogy scripted by a sadistic young-adult author and I very much hope that our plucky young heroes show up to save the day soon, even if there’s a clunky love triangle involved.

Dystopias are easy to construct: to paraphrase the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, you might as well pick five news headlines at random, make a collage and there’s your plot. Utopias are harder. Utopias require that we do the difficult, necessary work of envisioning a better world. This is why imagination is the first, best weapon of radicals and progressives.

Utopian stories existed long before the word was coined by Thomas More in the 16th century to mean an ideal society, or “no-place”. Plato’s Republic has some claim to being the first but there are as many Utopias as there are communities that dreamed of a better life. The greatest age of utopian fiction was the turn of the last century and it is no accident that the early 21st century is a great age of dystopian fiction. The ideology of late-capitalist patriarchy has become so all-encompassing that it no longer looks like ideology. Fredric Jameson observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – and the reason for that is not that capitalism is the inevitable destiny of humankind but that we have spent our lives being told that even thinking about any other future makes us ridiculous.

Most leftists do have an idea of the sort of world they would prefer to see. We don’t say what we want for the same reason that we were told as children not to tell anyone else what we wished for – because it’ll be awkward and painful if we don’t get it.

When I think about Utopia, I think about my grandmother. My mother’s mother left school at 13, lived through the Maltese blockade and was obliged by religion and circumstance to marry young, suffocate all her dreams of education and adventure and spend her life taking care of a husband and six kids. Half a century later, I can choose when and whether to have children. I can choose to live independently from men. I regularly travel alone and there are no legal restrictions on getting any job I’m suited for.

The kind of independence many women my age can enjoy would have been almost unimaginable half a century ago – but somebody did imagine it and that is why we got here. A great many somebodies, over centuries of struggle and technological advancement, asked how the world could be different for women and set about making it happen.

Exactly a century ago, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland envisioned a society of women in which production was communal, motherhood was valued, relationships were equal and rape and violence were unknown. Reading Herland today, it is striking that for every proposition that came true – women are now allowed to divorce their husbands and participate fully in political life – there are two more that seem as far-fetched now as they did in 1915. Motherhood is still not valued as work. Women are still expected to organise our lives around the threat of sexual violence. But all that can change as long as we continue to ask for more.

For as long as I have been a feminist, I have been asked – usually by grumbling men – when, exactly, we will be satisfied; when women and girls will decide we have enough. The answer is contained in the question: because the instant that we do decide that we are satisfied, that there can never be a better world than this, is the instant that the future shuts down and change becomes impossible.

Utopia is the search for Utopia. It is the no-place by whose light you plot a course through a harsh and unnavigable present. By the time you reach the horizon, it is no longer the horizon but that doesn’t mean you stop going forwards.

Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there. In the midst of multiple global crises, the only truly ridiculous proposition is that things are going to stay exactly the same.

Human societies are going to change beyond recognition and from the conference table to the streets, our best shot at surviving that change starts when we have the courage to make impossible demands – to face down ridicule and say, “We want more.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State