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  1. Politics
4 March 2011

The left has lost the debate on immigration

And it has only itself to blame.

By Dan Hodges

Mrs Duffy has won. Searchlight Educational Trust’s report into race, migration and identity, published on Monday, is brutally unequivocal. The “progressive majority” is a chimera. There is “deep resentment” towards immigration, with a greater proportion of English Asians than white people now favouring an immediate halt to all new migrants. Islamophobia is becoming socially embedded, and nearly half of all English voters say they would be prepared to consider supporting an extreme right-wing party if it shunned violence and fascist imagery.

“The central findings contained in this publication should ricochet through the body politic,” says Jon Cruddas. They will. There will be much hand-wringing and soul-searching, on both left and right.

The search must go deep. William Hague’s decision to play the race card when there were no other cards in his pack. Michael Howard’s dog whistle. Cameron in Munich. Forty years on, the Conservative Party is still haunted by the spectre of the ancient Roman.

But let us not kid ourselves. As we survey the rubble that is the liberal consensus on migration and multiculturalism, the left has no one to blame but itself. We have presided over a political and moral capitulation of historic proportions.

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In 1997 we were set fair. The politics of race had played no part in the election that secured our victory. The BNP’s isolated bridgehead in Millwall had been smashed. A new wave of positive English patriotism had emerged from the Euro ’96 football tournament, in a direct and spontaneous repudiation of narrow nationalism and hooliganism. Gerri Haliwell’s Union Jack dress at the Brit awards had provocatively reclaimed our national flag from the extreme right.

How did we get from there to here? The BNP having to be beaten back from seizing control of not just individual council seats, but entire councils? Thousand-strong mobs besieging our minority ethnic communities? “Diversity” a dirty word, “asylum-seeker” a form of abuse? A Labour prime minister – a Labour prime minister – campaigning on a slogan of British jobs for British workers?

Part of the failure has been managerial, an inability to recognise that modern migration patterns, while low by historic standards, can still have a disproportionate impact on the social cohesion of individual communities, especially when those communities have not been provided with the resources or infrastructure to manage change.

More catastrophic has been our political management. Tony Blair’s response to any problematic issue was the same – triangulate it. On immigration and race, this meant Labour ministers fanning out across the airwaves, attacking Romany beggars, raging against swamped doctors’ surgeries and pledging to strip the veil from the faces of their oppressed constituents.

But bashing Blair is all too easy. Ours is a collective defeat. On the right of the movement, the attempt to appropriate the language of the extremists was compounded by a total failure to engage with the very working families and communities those extremists were targeting. “Our base has nowhere to go” was the mantra as we set our sights on capturing a narrow strip of land called Middle England. It turned out they did have somewhere to go, as they embarked on a journey that culminated in Nick Griffin boarding the Eurostar to Brussels.

If the right stands guilty of complacency, so the liberal left stands guilty of hubris. With the election of a Labour government, we perched on the threshold of a progressive millennium. A liberal elite was poised, missionary-like, to spread a new religion of tolerance, diversity and communal harmony. At dinner parties, in flowery editorials and in worthy pamphlets, the word went forth: we are a nation now at ease with itself.

A nation at ease? We were a nation fracturing. Nine out of ten of those identified in the Searchlight survey as “mainstream liberals” viewed immigration as positive for the country. At the same time, two out of every three of the demographic “identity ambivalents” held a completely opposite viewpoint.

We have accommodated. We have consolidated. But at no point have we attempted to engage – either with those communities that represent the new wave of migration, nor with those communities that have, at the extreme, tried to resist it.

This is the crucial failure. Our public representation has not been representation at all. It has been observation and analysis, but not understanding. How many of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband’s inner circle have been schooled in the new politics of migration or race?

None. They had no interest; forced instead to regulate and oversee a surrender. A capitulation. We have totally, abjectly, pathetically failed to hold a progressive line. Those who viewed Gillian Duffy as all that it is good and honest and true in British society have been vindicated. Those of us, like me, who agreed with Gordon Brown that a latent bigotry underpinned her comments, have been vanquished.

Race, migration and identity used to represent a key battleground for the progressive left. No longer. We have been routed.

Mrs Duffy has won. It is her victory. The surrender is ours, and ours alone.