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 Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.