Ed Miliband: is he a beer or wine drinker? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why Labour should think culturally as well as economically about immigration

Ed Miliband can avoid a damaging split between his party's "beer drinkers" and "wine drinkers" on immigration, if he doesn't just rely on economic arguments.

A couple of weeks ago, a report by academics at UCL made one of the strongest cases yet for the economic benefits of immigration to the UK – not for the first time. Report after report has come to broadly similar conclusions, albeit with the occasional (though contested) caveat concerning the impact on those in very low-paid, low-skilled jobs. Yet for all the influence they’ve had on voters – and indeed on most of the parties that claim to represent them – their authors may as well not have bothered.

Labour’s position on immigration is a case in point. As the evidence of the economic benefits mounts, the party has become increasingly ambivalent about the whole issue. Yesterday’s announcements by Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves are only the latest instalment in a long line of carefully calibrated interventions in which they, and of course Ed Miliband, have apologised for what happened under the last Labour government and promised tougher and tougher measures to put things right.

Their efforts may have escaped the notice of those Labour MPs who, in the wake of any election at which the party appears to have lost support to Ukip, rush onto the airwaves and into print to insist that the leadership do something. But it doesn’t make it any less true. Why, then, don’t voters seem to have noticed either? The answer – and indeed the reason why Labour is going to find neutralising immigration as an issue almost impossible in the run up to the general election – lies in the party’s continued insistence on giving an essentially economic answer to what for many voters is actually a cultural question.

Miliband’s big immigration speech at the start of the Rochester and Strood campaign was a classic example. Aside from the introduction of beefed-up border controls and English language requirements on those working in the public sector, the measures he proposed were all economic, covering the exploitation, recruitment and training of workers and restrictions on eligibility for benefits.

That this is the case should come as no real surprise. It may well be true that the Labour party "owes more to Methodism than to Marxism" but, like all socialist and social democratic parties, its view of the world is essentially economistic. As a result, unhappiness about immigration and the associated rise of the populist radical right tends, whatever academic research says to the contrary, to be seen as fundamentally driven by, say, labour market dislocation or pressures on public services.

If anything, the tendency to do that is stronger than ever now that it’s become virtually taboo among politicians of all parties to suggest that some of their voters are racially prejudiced or even simply xenophobic – something that their predecessors in, say, the Sixties and Seventies, were far more comfortable admitting and far more determined to do something about.

There are Labour people who have pointed to the need to take a more three-dimensional approach to the subject – one which requires Labour to do more to think about how it might tackle the sense of dispossession, dislocation and displacement associated with decades of immigration. Maurice Glasman is one example. John Denham is another, even if, in calling for the party to reassess its seemingly reflex support for the principle (and therefore the practical consequences) of free movement, his prescription is as much economic as it is cultural.

But they are, at present anyway, seen, if not as mavericks, then as on the fringes of a difficult debate that the party would rather not have – a debate between what in some continental social democratic parties are called the "beer drinkers" (concerned with maintaining the party’s appeal to the white working class) and the "wine drinkers" (who believe the future is liberal, not regressive).

This is a pity. For one thing, failing to acknowledge that the party’s more discerning beer drinkers like Glasman and Denham are saying something worth listening to will leave the field open to the lager louts – the rent-a-quote Labour MPs who talk a lot but don’t really have much to say.

For another, thinking more culturally as well as economically about immigration may mean that – in the long term at least – Labour finds a better way to address voters’ concerns than simply introducing measures that, even if they don’t prove futile or even counterproductive, few voters seem willing to believe will ever be implemented. That voters don’t trust the Tories either is something to hold on to, but it is also pretty cold comfort.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics Queen Mary University of London and author of The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser