Keir Starmer was right to argue in his recent Sunday Telegraph piece that voters “have been betrayed on immigration and Brexit”. Passionately opposed by the governing class in Westminster and Whitehall, Brexit was bound to disappoint Leave voters who wanted national renewal. The following day, in his speech at the Resolution Foundation’s conference, Starmer recognised the need for a new economic consensus, an alternative to the broken free-market model.
Labour’s political challenge is both cultural and economic. It is why immigration, which is about work and wages, public services, national identity, community cohesion and cultural difference, has proven to be such an enduring source of political unrest. Nowhere has the estrangement between the political class and voters been more evident than in Britain’s immigration statistics. In the year to June 2023, 1.2 million people immigrated to the UK, with net migration standing at 672,000, slightly down from the record 745,000 in 2022. Added to this, the credit ratings agency S&P Global has found that only one in five immigrants come to work and often lack the right skills to fill job vacancies. Voters wanted to take back control of national borders and restore sovereignty. Instead, the government has lost control with a dysfunctional and ineffective system.
Under the economic liberalism of Margaret Thatcher, the UK became an outlier in creating an economy with minimum investment and high levels of low-skill, low-wage jobs dependent upon migrant labour. The result has been chronic economic insecurity and levels of immigration that have created a demographic revolution that has changed the country. The populist reaction has shattered the political centre ground. National politics is both volatile and trapped in a state of inertia.
Such a moment of crisis provides Labour with the opportunity to define the new political era. In Starmer’s words, Labour must bring “meaningful change” that is “rooted in the concerns and dreams of ordinary British people”. He might begin with Labour’s own response to immigration and populism.
Back in 2015, at the time of Labour’s “Controls on Immigration” mug, the political problem of immigration was on the party’s mind but a political response was constantly avoided. Labour had lost the 2010 general election partly as a consequence of its support for immigration, and yet questioning party policy invited accusations of racism and bigotry. On the doorstep, voters who voiced anxiety were informed that what really concerned them wasn’t immigration but the lack of skills training. That told them. Only it didn’t. It proved that Labour was avoiding the subject.
[See also: It’s time to rebut the lockdown sceptics]
As Ukip gained support through its anti-immigration politics, populism began to rise among Labour voters. The party denied the impact on its electoral support, then tried to reassert political normality by changing the subject. Finally it started to define itself against the populist voters deserting the party. It told itself they favoured obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom. That they valued a closed society over an open one, disliked black, brown or foreign people, didn’t like Europe, tended to be old and reactionary, and were aggrieved because they felt left behind. They didn’t belong in the Labour family. Instead of political understanding, the party employed moral condemnation.
As the Marxist theorist Ernesto Laclau writes in On Populist Reason (2007) this kind of disdainful rejection of populism is a dismissal of politics “tout court”. It presumes that the management of society is the concern of an administrative power “whose source of legitimacy is a proper knowledge of what a ‘good’ community is”. Anti-populism, he asserts, is anti-democratic. Political conflict is neutralised by reducing it to the technical expertise of a “we know best” elite.
But avoiding political conflict is also counter-productive. As Peter Marris in Loss and Change (1986) points out, whenever people are confronted with disruptive change, they need the opportunity to react, to articulate their ambivalent feelings and to work out what it means to them. Tensions can be relieved by constructing the boundaries of a conflict and articulating popular emotions around a collective experience of “us” against “them”.
Today the ruling consensus on immigration and the political economy that creates dependency on it is unbroken. The politics of both the Conservative and Labour parties are still invested in the old liberal order. The government’s new five-point immigration plan seeks to reduce net migration by 300,000. But without a programme to reform the national economy, improve wages, and boost vocational education and training, it will not cure the UK’s dependency. The ideology of market liberalism is a straitjacket on change. Both parties have been forced to accept that immigration is too high, but both avoid the hard choices that would significantly reduce numbers.
For some populism is now a spent force. They point to its incoherent proliferation – Nigel Farage, Jeremy Corbyn, Sara Wagenknecht, Giorgia Meloni, Geert Wilders – across Europe. But Laclau cautions those who would judge populism by conventional forms of politics. It is not an ideology nor a type of organisation, but a part of culture. It might be contradictory and imprecise, he argues, but that is a reflection of a social reality in which old political identifications have broken down. Populism’s lack of definition is the precondition for constructing new political meanings. It is not a transitional moment to be superseded by a mature politics, but a constant dimension of democratic life.
To gain political ascendancy, a party must be able to inscribe populist demands into its own political programme. Following its 2019 electoral realignment this proved beyond the Conservative government. Labour struggled to take advantage. In passing moral judgement on populism, it excluded itself from hegemonic competition. It has now been granted a second chance.
There are two lessons to take from Labour’s reaction to populism. The first is that the principal task of a democratic movement is the construction of “a people”. Transactional policies, triangulation, or simply relying on economic policy alone, is not sufficient. A political people comes into existence when it produces a thinking, feeling representative that voices its unarticulated feelings.
The second lesson is that political and cultural values – what people believe in – are constituted in a way of life. Liberalism treats the individual as prior to society and abstracted from language, culture and power relations. Populism has been a reaction against its destructive impact and an attempt to defend a cultural life that feels threatened, and create a more social and reciprocal order.
Labour’s politics of national renewal must have a story to tell about the country, its people and their future which forms the basis of its policy programme. Opposition to high levels of immigration cannot be excluded. It is fundamental to the remaking of a democratic people and the kind of country they want to be.
[See also: In 2024, Labour must offer hope]