"This is somebody who thoroughly dislikes what modern Britain is.” (Photo: Getty)
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Chuka Umunna on Nigel Farage: "The mask slips to reveal something that is pretty nasty"

As the election gets closer, Nigel Farage is showing his true face - and Labour must call it for what it is, says Chuka Umunna.

Unless you're Dermot Murnaghan, Chuka Umunna doesn't get angry. Unsurprisingly considering his background – he worked as a solicitor at Herbert Smith and Rochman Landau before becoming an MP – he slowly and calmly assembles a case.

And the charge sheet against Ukip and Nigel Farage – back in the headlines after calling for the repeal of all racial discrimination laws – is getting longer.

“What have we seen over the last 18 months?” Umunna asks, “We’ve seen the party [Ukip] adopt the old slogan of the BNP. We’ve heard him [Nigel Farage] stating that he feels awkward on the train in the company of people speaking other languages. We’ve seen him get stuck in a traffic jam and immediately seeking to blame immigrants for that.”

He pauses. “So it’s not all surprising that given his form he doesn’t see the need for racial equality legislation in our country.”  As the campaign wears on, Umunna argues, “more and more of the mask slips to reveal something that is pretty nasty. And all that’s happened in the last 24 hours is that the mask has slipped even more. This isn’t a picture of somebody who to use their slogan, loves Britain, this is somebody who thoroughly dislikes what modern Britain is.”

But it’s a challenge for Labour, too, says the man who many regard as one of Ed Miliband’s best weapons in the fight to return to power after just one term in opposition. “Those of us who would rather that people voted for other parties – our own party – need to make that argument on its own merits. We need to say that we in the Labour Party believe in all the people in this country, we don’t believe in privatising the NHS or tax cuts targeted [only] at the very rich. And that’s not something that Ukip can say.”

“But, he adds, “Equally, it is beholden on us to draw attention to what Ukip are offering, which is also pretty unattractive. It’s very important we call out any Ukip candidate who says things like this.”

In their short time in the limelight, Ukip candidates have made the offensive seem ordinary, from the councillor who believes that equal marriage causes flooding to the activist who suggested that Lenny Henry should go and live “in a black country”, and Umunna says, we “price it in”.

“There is a virus of racism running through that party,” Umunna argues, “And they don’t appear capable of rooting it as they don’t understand the problem.”

It’s not just abstract for Umunna, whose father, Bennett, arrived in Britain from Nigeria without a penny to his name before going onto become a successful businessman. “The things they say about Eastern Europeans now,” he tells me, “are no different from the things people used to say about black and Asian immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s.”

“These [Eastern Europeans] are people who contribute to our economy and our society,” Umunna says “ They’re the target of choice now, but Ukip’ll move onto another target.”

“We act as if it’s acceptable,” Umunna tells me. “And it’s not. It stands against our British values of fair play and respect for one another. And we have to call it out for what it is.”

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

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.