Westminster may dabble in xenophobia, but the reality is that racism isn’t popular

Britain’s immigration debate would look very different if ministers overcame their fear of the fringe and trusted voters with a more honest account of the country we have.

Painted in a certain light, Britain in the summer of 2013 can be made to look pretty nasty. Government vans crawled the streets with a threat to migrants conveyed in the tone of a police state and the idiom of the far right: “Go home or face arrest.” Politicians blame every malaise on foreign interlopers: new arrivals with jobs must be jumping the queue; those without work must be gobbling benefits and hogging hospital beds. Westminster cringes before Ukip, a party that lubricates intolerance with theatrical pub cheer.

But with a change of palette, the same country can be construed differently. The menacing vans have been steered off the streets by the threat of a legal challenge, exposing a failure of process at the Home Office. The stunt has been quietly disowned by Downing Street. (“The Prime Minister probably didn’t even know it was happening,” a senior Tory adviser tells me.) Even Nigel Farage affected distaste at a “nasty, Big Brother” device.

The anxiety about immigration that shows up in opinion polls is not matched by an exclusion of immigrants and their families from British culture. Only a year ago, the nation cheered Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill, flagbearers for multi-ethnic Britishness, as its Olympic king and queen. TV audiences elected a Hungarian dance troupe as this year’s winner of Britain’s Got Talent. It isn’t a scientific reading of the collective mood but it suggests we are some way off from nationalist frenzy.

For every ministerial dabble in the vilification of migrants, there is a caveat of admiration for the contribution that foreigners have made to the enrichment of these isles. That is the paradox of British political xenophobia – the racist element in populism must be discreet because overt racism isn’t popular.

There is plainly some ugly bigotry expressed in Ukip’s rise but the stronger animus is reserved for politicians from other parties who are accused of colluding in an open-border policy and sneering at anyone who objects. Conservative and Labour MPs say the pro-Farage voters they meet on the doorstep barely distinguish between a blue and a red rosette. They are treated as interchangeable logos on one governing machine.

So there may be less mileage than Conservative strategists think in boasting that the Tories are slamming shut the gates supposedly left open by Labour. When official statistics show net migration falling, voters don’t believe it. Besides, the transitional controls on migration from Bulgaria and Romania – EU members since 2007, whose access to the British jobs market has been delayed – will be lifted in January 2014. Ukip officials barely contain their glee at the unravelling this portends for Conservative claims to be running a “tough” border regime.

Labour suffers from a complex of agonies over immigration. It knows it has lost thousands of votes over the issue. The political computation of that number is then muddled by contradictory impulses: anti-racism as an ethical hallmark of left politics; a tendency to be automatically pro-European for fear of overlapping with Little Englanders’ cartoon hatred of Brussels; a liberal conviction that enterprising migrants are good for the economy and society; a less liberal distaste for the way globalisation treats labour as a fluid resource, sloshing across borders at capital’s behest.

Then there is Ed Miliband’s background as the son of Jewish refugees from the Nazis. The Labour leader is obliged by political reality to address resentment of mass immigration and driven by his upbringing to see the migrants’ side of the story. That could be a recipe for indecision. It may also be a useful combination, because immigrant communities in marginal seats could decide the outcome in a closely fought general election.

Non-white voters do not have uniform political preferences but there is a clear pattern of mistrust of the Tories. There are Conservatives, mostly in urban constituencies with thin majorities, who see this as a long-term crisis for the party. Their concerns have been swept aside in the tactical dash to plug the leak of angry white votes to Ukip.

By contrast, Labour’s position – interpreted generously – is to focus on the causes of antiimmigrant feeling: low wages; a housing crisis that breeds resentment of foreign families in council properties; the skills shortage in an army of unemployed youth. Miliband’s aim, say his friends, is to move the conversation away from race and on to systemic failings in an economy that permits the routine exploitation of migrants and neglect of local labour forces.

That was the point the shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, tried to make in a speech on 12 August but the message was garbled. The intervention was erected on a platform of factual error, resulting in an overnight rewrite and a panicky retreat from attacks on corporate employers, encouraging the less generous interpretation of Labour’s position as an unprincipled shambles.

That is unfortunate, because Miliband’s nuanced line, treating immigration anxiety as a function of deep-rooted economic insecurity, deserves an airing. Britain is not a nasty country. Nor is it poised to instal a Ukip government, as more level-headed Tories can see. One Conservative backbencher, lamenting his party’s fringe obsession, recently told me: "People talk about Nigel Farage’s great charisma. Actually, I think a lot of people see him as a bit of a dick."

Westminster devotes more energy to decoding what goes on in the minds of the one in ten voters who might back Ukip than it does to understanding the larger number of people who know that Faragism isn’t the solution. There is in any society a bitter, defensive streak that can be brought out by fear and a generous side that thrives on trust. Britain’s immigration debate would look very different if ministers overcame their fear of the fringe and trusted voters with a more honest account of the country we have and the kind of country most of us want.

A van carrying the Home Office's message to illegal immigrants: 'Go home or face arrest.'

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Corbyn's supporters loved his principles. But he ditched them in the EU campaign

Jeremy Corbyn never wanted Remain to win, and every gutless performance showed that. Labour voters deserve better. 

“A good and decent man but he is not a leader. That is the problem.” This was just-sacked Hilary Benn’s verdict on Jeremy Corbyn, and he’s two-thirds right. Corbyn is not a leader, and if that wasn’t obvious before the referendum campaign, it should be now. If the Vice documentary didn’t convince you that Corbyn is a man who cannot lead – marked by both insubstantiality and intransigence, both appalling presentation and mortal vanity – then surely his botched efforts for Remain must have.

But so what. Even Corbyn’s greatest supporters don’t rate him as a statesman. They like him because he believes in something. Not just something (after all, Farage believes in something: he believes in a bleached white endless village fete with rifle-toting freemen at the gates) but the right things. Socialist things. Non-Blairite things. The things they believe in. And the one thing that the EU referendum campaign should absolutely put the lie to is any image of Corbyn as a politician of principle – or one who shares his party’s values.

He never supported Remain. He never wanted Remain to win, and every gutless performance showed that. Watching his big centrepiece speech, anyone not explicitly informed that Labour was pro-Remain would have come away with the impression that the EU was a corrupt conglomerate that we’re better off out of. He dedicated more time to attacking the institution he was supposed to be defending, than he did to taking apart his ostensive opposition. And that’s because Leave weren’t his opposition, not really. He has long wanted out of the EU, and he got out.

It is neither good nor decent to lead a bad campaign for a cause you don’t believe in. I don’t think a more committed Corbyn could have swung it for Remain – Labour voters were firmly for Remain, despite his feeble efforts – but giving a serious, passionate account of what what the EU has done for us would at least have established some opposition to the Ukip/Tory carve-up of the nation. Now, there is nothing. No sound, no fury and no party to speak for the half the nation that didn’t want out, or the stragglers who are belatedly realising what out is going to mean.

At a vigil for Jo Cox last Saturday, a Corbyn supporter told me that she hoped the Labour party would now unify behind its leader. It was a noble sentiment, but an entirely misplaced one when the person we are supposed to get behind was busily undermining the cause his members were working for. Corbyn supporters should know this: he has failed you, and will continue to fail you as long as he is party leader.

The longer he stays in office, the further Labour drifts from ever being able to exercise power. The further Labour drifts from power, the more utterly hopeless the prospects for all the things you hoped he would accomplish. He will never end austerity. He will never speak to the nation’s disenfranchised. He will achieve nothing beyond grinding Labour ever further into smallness and irrelevance.

Corbyn does not care about winning, because he does not understand the consequences of losing. That was true of the referendum, and it’s true of his attitude to politics in general. Corbyn isn’t an alternative to right-wing hegemony, he’s a relic – happy to sit in a glass case like a saint’s dead and holy hand, transported from one rapturous crowd of true believers to another, but somehow never able to pull off the miracles he’s credited with.

If you believe the Labour party needs to be more than a rest home for embittered idealists – if you believe the working class must have a political party – if you believe that the job of opposing the government cannot be left to Ukip – if you believe that Britain is better than racism and insularity, and will vote against those vicious principles when given a reason to; if you believe any of those things, then Corbyn must go. Not just because he’s ineffectual, but because he’s untrustworthy too.

Some politicians can get away with being liars. There is a kind of anti-politics that is its own exemplum, whose representatives tell voters that all politicians are on the make, and then prove it by being on the make themselves and posing as the only honest apples in the whole bad barrel. That’s good enough for the right-wing populists who will take us out of Europe but it is not, it never has been, what the Labour Party is. Labour needs better than Corbyn, and the country that needs Labour must not be failed again.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.