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13 January 2017updated 17 Jan 2024 7:27am

When facing hatred, Labour must realise there is no middle way

Polish pilots christened Britain "Last Hope Island" in the darkest days of World War II. Let's learn from them. 

By Alison McGovern

As my granddad used to say, in response to wrong-headed nostalgia: “You certainly could leave your front door open in the old days, there was nothing inside to take.” Politics as historic re-enactment society is pointless. But nonetheless, we face an old problem: the far-right, and the power of their hate.

Yes, 2016 was the year of Donald Trump and Brexit. But, to me the horrors are more immediate. One of my friends is dead. Another has been forced into court to put two of Jo’s murderer’s fellow fascists in prison. A Jewish Labour councillor in Liverpool is peeling National Action “Nazi-zone” stickers off signs in his ward.

What to do in the face of it? First of all, we should recognise that politicians make choices, and those choices have consequences.

Why? Let me take one lesson from history. According to the Royal Air Force Museum, after the fall of France in 1940, Polish airmen were evacuated to Britain, whereupon they called us “Wyspa Ostatniej Nadziei”. That means “Last Hope Island“. No wonder then, that they were prepared to die for us. And my god, did they fight with us. The 303 Squadron – with its Polish pilots  – was the best in the business, shooting down 126 German planes in 42 days. The Polish actually suffered most losses too – another Polish squadron, the 300, suffered the highest deaths of any unit.

How bitter, then, that politics prevented the British people properly marking the Polish contribution to their Last Hope Island. They were excluded from the victory parade in 1946. A political decision was taken that “foreign” fighters would be excluded.

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I can’t help wondering if perhaps if the history of Polish people in Britain was more widely understood, our national debate might be different. Polish migration to Britain is not new. It did not begin with EU expansion. And the same is true of many other communities: 4,000 Syrian refugees join a British Syrian community that has existed for decades. But instead, we capitulate to hatred, and those fleeing terrors are characterised as unwanted newcomers.

Too often, politicians make the wrong choice on rhetoric, and we all bear the consequences. As the treatment of the Polish pilots shows, either we choose to give ground to hatred, or we choose to take it on. There is no middle way. There is no compromise. When you acknowledge that some people don’t like foreigners, either you can speak and act as if you agree with them, or you live up to the values of the Labour party. You cannot do both. Either you stand for principle or you stand for nothing.

That’s a hard truth, but it is a fact. Certainly, our job is to listen to people. Our job is to serve people’s needs. But that is a completely different political act than being servile in the face of prejudice.

Which brings me to immigration. Even before Brexit, this issue has consistently ranked in the top three issues pollsters have told us the surveyed public care about. Having been intimately involved in three general elections over the past decade, I have learnt that you cannot avoid it. You must embrace this debate. Along with the economy, schools, hospitals, and potholes, it is the meat and drink of British politics. Don’t like it? Get over it.

Question is, why are people worried about it? Immigration is both good and necessary for our economy. But that view is clearly challenged. Why? Two reasons, I think.

First, blaming foreigners when things go wrong for ordinary people is the oldest trick in the right-wing play book. Read history, and see the constant tale of leaders who united a disparate people against a common enemy. At times of economic trouble, people will put up with a lot if they believe their suffering is for a greater victory.

Second, despite how wrong-headed the charges against economic migration may be, there are very real security concerns related to our borders, and threats beyond them.

So how do we engage with these worries?

First, then, on the economy. When real wages haven’t grown for the best part of a decade, it is very natural to look for someone to blame. And it is easy to believe that increased availability of working people from eastern Europe has caused wages to fall. It’s the basic principle of supply and demand determining the price. People are, quite understandably, applying basic economic ideas. Except that in the story of low wage growth and migration, things are not so simple as they might first appear.

Ask yourself this. Why have the Tories failed their migration target? To cut immigration from “hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands” does not seem such a ludicrous goal. After all, the British government controls immigration numbers coming from outside the EU. And immigration from outside the EU is larger than immigration from inside the EU.

The answer is simple, really. There is need for that workforce, so visas have been awarded. By and large, those coming from outside the EU are awarded Tier 2 visas. These permits are awarded to those with a job offer in a skilled role. The government are not awarding any visas at present for unskilled work, so could, presumably cease to award Tier 2 visas if they wished to, and cut immigration that way.

Equally, imagine there was, in fact, a huge body of evidence that EU migration had lowered wages substantially. Given David Cameron’s commitment to meeting his immigration target and George Osborne’s stated aim of raising wages, if all that was needed to raise wages was a fall in migration, why would they have campaigned to stay in the EU at all? The Tory strategy could have been much more simple: campaign to leave the EU, cut low skilled migration, and, allegedly, raise wages.

But they didn’t. Because the truth is more complicated. There is something pulling in those workers to Britain. It is not our benefits system. It’s our demography. Our population, steadily growing older, needs the working-age population to grow, if we as a society are to afford pensions, healthcare, and all the other services people require when they live long into their nineties.

The Office for National Statistics tells us that the dependency ration used to be contant at about 300 pensioners per 1,000 working age people. Without unpopular state pension age rises, it would have been 487 by 2039, but even with serious hikes in the pension age, it will still get up to 370.

Without younger people coming into our country, the UK government’s fiscal position will deteriorate. Immigration then is simply the natural result of this demographic predicament. What matters is how we prevent the far right and the hard right from exploiting this for their own marginal short-term political gain.

Events in 2016 demonstrate the huge cost of complacency. In 2017, it’s time to reassert the Labour principle of standing up for working people, whatever their background. What matters is not where you are from, it’s how hard you are prepared to work.

We can raise wages, through collective bargaining, and through tackling decades long stagnation in parts of our economy. But there is no point starting off with a false and flawed prospectus.

Now let me turn to security. People quite naturally look to their leaders  – left or right – to protect them from attack. Defending the realm must be the minimum purpose of any government.

Of course, given a horrific terrorist attack, all are equally vulnerable. But for the communities with least, the problem of insecurity is most severe. Organised crime, trafficking, serious exploitation – these crimes find a home in the areas with most dereliction and pre-existing poverty.

Like our police, our border force is starved of resources. And we allow an equally tightly-resourced private company to deal with people who are in Britain with spurious asylum claims. It is no wonder that voters worry about the security of our borders. They are right to. The next Labour government must put this right.

And it’s not just the threat of criminals or illegal immigrants that we face. To return to the rise of the hard right, there is also the significant matter of defending our values and the freedoms we enjoy. Recall the universal, unchanging values of the Labour movement: to capture the means of power for ordinary working people in our country through the democratic winning of elections.

We stand for the simple truth that freedom involves the ability to have a say over who runs our country, and if you choose, to stand for election and take that power yourself for the good of the many. Those principles are at stake in the world today.

After all, there was a reason Clement Attlee, Stafford Cripps and Herbert Morrison joined the national government to defeat fascism. They saw firstly the great injustice of a horrific power that wanted to capture countries and impose its might upon them. But they also saw the immense risk to the people we serve of allowing democratic principles to be trashed.

That is why our country must, in 2017, cease turning in on itself and look outwards to the world. We must see what is happening in front of us, as murderous regimes, backed by powerful leaders (who are never troubled by elections) throw their weight around, responding to a weakened international community.

Reflecting on such things, I am even more thankful to all who fought to keep our country safe in our darkest hours. We should take pride in all who fought, British born and bred, or from whichever nation that chose to fight alongside us. It is painful to hear the far right declare themselves patriots but trample on the values that were fought for. And it is gives me great cause for regret that we have not always spoken out loudly and clearly against those political vandals that want to divide our country on lines of ethnicity, background, or race.

But it is never too late. Thousands of Syrians are dead, and that can never be undone. But even after all this time, we can resolve to never pander to the far right, and speak out for human rights and the security of our own citizens.

And we can offer hope. When those Polish pilots christened our country “Last Hope Island”, they spoke a powerful truth of how to stand up to hatred and division. Act in solidarity and with hope, even when the night is darkest. Solidarity and hope. Two ideas at the core of the Labour movement, the values without which we would be nothing and the principles on which our patriotism and our internationalism are built.

And the truth is that for many people in our history, Labour has been that Last Hope Island, the people who would stand with you when nobody else would, when there was nowhere else to turn. We must play that role today. With the far right on the rise, and a government trying to ride the wave of hated rather than take it head on, Labour must live up to the values that bind us to the most courageous hour of the last century.

What is the point then of the Labour movement? To recreate our past, or to give our country hope that injustice can end? The answer is obvious. The purpose of our movement is to give our country a future, not to regurgitate some imagined past. The world’s going to change, and we change with it. Values are forever, but technology, knowledge, and abilities change. Labour must therefore shape the changes or die. There’s no going back.

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