A clear and present peril

Immigration has become the new fault line cutting across the British political landscape.

Race, class, economics, law and order, foreign affairs, religion, education, employment, community cohesion, social identity: sooner or later every major political issue is channelled through the prism of immigration. And as it refracts, so it is subtly redefined.

The immigration debate itself is, of course, not new. From the Windrush generation of the 1950s, through the radical social realignment of the '60s, the far-right backlash and anti-fascist fight-back of the '70s, the Thatcherite neo-nationalism of the '80s and the Cool Britannia patriotic reclamation of the '90s, immigration and race have always occupied a prominent place on the political agenda. However, in the past they have existed either as self-contained issues or as a subset of a wider political discourse. Never -- at least not in my lifetime -- has immigration had such a dominant or pervasive hold over every strand of our national politics.

Increasing voter concern

At the time of the 1997 election, MORI's Issue Tracker recorded those citing race or immigration as the most important issue facing the nation at 3 per cent. By last May's election, it was 38 per cent. In 1997, the British National Party (BNP) put up 54 candidates and secured 36,000 votes, at an average of 664 votes per candidate. In 2010, 339 BNP candidates obtained more than half a million votes, at an average of 1,663 votes per candidate. A YouGov poll taken in March found that 69 per cent of those questioned believed Labour's management of immigration had been bad for the country, compared to 21 per cent who thought it had been beneficial.

Immigration, the elephant in the room? Not any more. Now it's parading down the high street, garlanded in ribbons, leading a three-ring circus.
This detonation over migration has shaken both left and right. For the Conservatives, who had long seen the issue as a licence to print votes, the increase in support for the BNP has presented a serious political problem, akin to UKIP in bovver boots. It has also generated a wider debate within David Cameron's inner circle about whether tough lines on immigration cut across the 'New Tory' brand, a debate heightened by the awareness that both William Hague and Michael Howard, when they were Tory leader, ran hard on the issue, to little tangible benefit. To be fair, there's also a generational shift taking place within the Conservative Party, with a number of younger MPs and members looking to put distance between themselves and the legacy of Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' and Tebbit's 'Cricket Test'.

For the left, the issues thrown up are even more challenging. We're now confronted with a need to reassess old certainties on three fronts: political, economic and cultural.

Past failures

Politically, our response has been disastrous. Immigration had been seen as just another issue to triangulate. Attack the BNP, whilst co-opting their language; criticise Tory dog whistles as we blow trumpets about "British jobs for British workers"; pay lip service to the 'white working class', then thrust them to the margins in pursuit of votes from the citizens of a middle-English Shangri-La. The immigration genie burst from its box on Labour's watch. And we must adopt a radically different political posture if we're going to get it back in again.

On an economic and policy level, we've also been chasing shadows. On the Labour leadership debate shown on Channel 4 News in September, the candidates were asked the patsy question, "has there been too much immigration?" They trotted out their responses, each pitching to their constituencies. But it's a false question, without a tangible answer. Because we don't have an immigration problem - we have an immigration management problem.

What is a sensible limit? 1,000, 10,000, 100,000? The numbers are an abstraction. Yes, we need controls on migration. But whatever the figure, what really matters is our capacity at a national, regional and community level to manage the migratory shifts that do occur. A net increase of 1,000 migrants is nationally insignificant. But if those migrants settle in a single location, within a community that has little or no experience of external migration, with no flexibility in its capacity to provide housing, employment, education and other social services, then that's a recipe for trouble.

Perversely, Labour's broader policy agenda has cut right across this imperative. At the macro-economic level we've been using migration to introduce a covert 21st century incomes policy. Our housing policy has vainly relied on the market to follow migratory patterns, instead of allowing the state to predict, plan and build around those patterns. Our failure to tackle the legacy of de-industrialisation, fused with the globalisation of employment markets, is creating a battleground between domestic and migrant labour. Again, these are policy legacies of both Tory and Labour governments. And again, we need to construct a programme for integrating migration policy, as well as moulding migration into a wider progressive socio-economic narrative.

But perhaps the biggest challenge we face on the left is cultural. How can we reconcile our progressive instincts with the demand from elements of our working class base to directly confront the inverse inequalities in housing, employment and education that immigration is perceived to have generated? Because there is no mileage in pretending any longer that those demands aren't being made.

New opportunities

My own view is that we must view this challenge not as a threat but as an opportunity. Until recently, Labour's working class base was politically marginalised. Now there is a consensus across the party that this support can no longer be taken for granted. While immigration is seen right now to lie at the heart of white working class concerns, if we can deconstruct the issue into its component parts -- job creation, quality education for all, affordable housing - we have the first outlines of a new and exciting political agenda.

We can also seize the organisational opportunities. The threat posed by the BNP has mobilised our activist base like no other issue since we entered government. The organising model pioneered by the Hope Not Hate campaign, which routed Nick Griffin and his party at the general and local elections, provides the perfect blueprint for revitalising our own party structures.

But perhaps most crucially, the immigration debate provides the opportunity to construct new progressive alliances, and reach across what is essentially an artificial divide. In my own Dagenham constituency, the migratory patterns of African families are precisely mirroring the migratory patterns of 50 or 60 years before, when white working class families moved out of inner East London.

They have a strong belief in education, advancement and aspiration. There aren't anti-social behavior problems or issues of neighborhood nuisance. They bring strong faith traditions with them, in exactly the way that people nostalgically remember their own migration here 50 years ago. And, as we saw locally, when the community was forced to face up to the challenge presented by the BNP then similarity and commonality were thrown into focus just as sharply as any difference.

Of course, the challenges surrounding immigration policy are significant. The BNP's implosion provides some breathing space but does not represent a cessation of hostilities. The Coalition's cuts agenda will further strain the social fabric. A Labour Party coming to terms with opposition for the first time in over a decade will have its missteps as it sets out on a new political journey.

But at least the fault line running through British politics is a clear one. The perils are out in the open, not lurking beneath the surface. We have the tools to bridge the divide. All that's needed are the wisdom and courage to use them.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham and Rainham and founded the All Party Parliamentary group on Migration. This essay is included in a collection of essays published by ippr called "Immigration under Labour" which is available for download here.

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

CREDIT: GETTY
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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum