Labour has lost it’s spine on immigration…..

As Gordon Brown was speaking unveiling ‘tough new immigration proposals’ over on LabourList Majorie Smith was contemplating the immigration ‘conundrum’. It is best described as a conundrum that arises from the conflict between principle and practical politics as Smith outlines. On the one hand Labour should indeed be ‘internationalist’ in its outlook but on the other the British National Party are breathing down its neck and embattled British workers are starting to demand that they be given preference in a tough labour market.

However, immigration has always been a ‘stick’ with which to beat Labour. So, Smith’s seeming assertion that this is something new that developed ‘several years ago’ is a-historical to say the least. Sure, the immigration demographic changes as does the area people are concerned about but the issue is as old as the Labour Party itself, in fact, it is even older. In 1964 the then shadow Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, was ousted by Smethwick Conservatives and Peter Griffiths using the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for your neighbour then vote Labour’. Harold Wilson rightly took the Conservatives to task and rightly said Griffiths would serve his term as a Parliamentary ‘leper’.

Smith feels that the Conservatives are keeping the issue at arms length by using bodies such as Migration Watch and the Taxpayers Alliance to launch its attacks on immigration levels but neglects to mention that the Conservatives say much the same things they always have; what has changed is simply the media narrative which no longer spins them as ‘extreme’. Furthermore, her claim that this is the only issue the British National Party gain ‘traction’ on is misguided; they also, for example, gain traction on the corruptness of the political system. Also, by implication, economic issues like unemployment and social deprivation (blamed wrongly on immigration) are included in the issues with ‘traction’. Does Labour offer any kind of narrative that might appeal to those recently polled who feel that capitalism is either fatally flawed or in need of fundamental reform?

Her claim that Labour ‘remains uniquely vulnerable’ on immigration policy seems to neglect the issues that give rise to concerns about immigration and instead, wrongly, ascribes this vulnerability to Labour’s internationalism;

Immigration was always going to be potentially embarrassing issue for Labour as its internationalist principles would leave it instinctively in a defensive posture when confronted.

In other words Labour simply hasn’t been tough enough when the real problem is that Labour no longer offers these people an alternative vision of something better. Labour Party ideology right now is a council of despair for those at the bottom of society.  Smith poses a question;

What sort of response should the party should develop; and what arguments can it deploy on the doorsteps in order to convince voters (and the more reasonable media outlets) that scare stories about immigration should be treated with the contempt they deserve?

Gordon Brown above outlines the wrong response. In outlining ‘tough new proposals’ you concede the premise of the debate; that there is a problem and it needs better management and effectively abandon the principled core. Smith herself seems to be in a bit of a tangle; on the one hand saying that immigration may well become an economic necessity to sustain things such as pensions, hospitals and care homes but on the other saying;

this has to be allied to a recognition that only in times of sustained economic prosperity can entry be granted to those who have the skills or who will fill jobs nobody else wants to do.

She then goes onto say the system has been abused because ‘desperate people do desperate things’ but with no attempt to ask why this happens and also says, correctly;

even under a rabid right-wing Government in the UK, illegal immigration and asylum seeking wouldn’t disappear, it wouldn’t even decline.

So, the reader is at a bit of a loss as to what the solution exactly is; I think that the solution lies somewhere in the words of Hugh Gaitskell, who acknowledged that immigration ‘presented problems’,  in 1961;

Do the government deal with it by seeking to combat social evils, by building more houses, by enforcing laws against overcrowding (…) and by emphasising to our own people the value of these immigrants and setting their face firmly against all forms of racial intolerance and discrimination? That is what we believe…


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6 responses to “Labour has lost it’s spine on immigration…..”

  1. JohnOfEnfield says :

    I would like to suggest that Labour (the New version in particular) is becoming a victim of its own vicious smearing of anyone who tries to engage in a logical debate about excessive levels of immigration.

    Everyone is now extremely conscious about being smeared as a racist and so the issue cannot be debated in the normal political process. As a result, when the Government’s policy on immigration creates problems we haven’t got the natural safety valve of public debate. Even worse, political correctness ensures that discussion cannot be had within any large institution – policemen, nurses and civil servants can be sent for diversity training, seemingly even if they merely comment on immigration, religion or race policy.

    New Labour have therefore driven discussion about immigration, racial and religious prejudice underground.

    This suppression of debate is probably more of an issue than the fact of excessive immigration itself. The feeling of injustice being created in the electorate will eventually cause a social explosion of some kind.


  2. Matthew Huntbach says :

    When the political right still had some small-c conservatism to it, being opposed to heavy immigration was a right-wing issue. It could be argued that the change to social norms and assumptions it brought were a strong argument against it.

    But now the political right is economically liberal, it’s no longer anything they are bothered about. Being heavily pro-immigration means being pleased that businesses can bring in well educated and able workers from other parts of the world where life is cheap so they’ll work for peanuts.

    The issue here is what is the prime purpose of the British government? Is it to protect the welfare of the British people, or is it to protect the interests of the top businessmen based in Britain? Or is it to protect the welfare of people across the world in general, so if people who are more oppressed and poorer than most Brits come here, we should put them first? Problem is, there are hundreds of millions of them. Those who do take the latter line – many liberals, social as well as economic – do need to have a serious answer to this point, and I find, by and large, they don’t. So instead they tend to fall back on immigration is 100% beneficial to everyone, and anyone who says otherwise is a racist who should be ignored.

    I know that many people who are not racist and on the whole have taken the line that it’s good to be a multi-racial society are beginning to think “OK, but when can we let things settle down a bit?”. For many decades we were told that the latest immigration was a temporary thing, a residue of the British empire, it would settle down. It hasn’t.

    People at the poorer end of society seem to be the ones who are expected to make the most adjustments to this, and cope with all the problems immigration brings, while the more immediate benefits seem to fall largely at the wealthier end.


  3. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Debates about immigration are rarely rational on either side to be honest. Rather I think Labour has failed to make the positive case for immigration that it has in it’s past. To some extent I see your point about political correctness censoring a debate and don’t much approve of multiculturalism as an ideological project as I feel it has become the actual negation of what it is meant to be.

    Part of the reason there isn’t the debate your wanting is that there is no mainstream platform putting the positive case for immigration as their should be. Also, the wider issue is one I have raised about structural failings of capitalism; which Labour no longer concerns itself with being replaced in peoples minds with asylum seeker bogeymen..


    Your right about the past but as you say that has changed; I think the mainstream political right tends to be in favour (though not to the point of positively making the case) and more in favour of control.

    It’s interesting; you are giving what in the past would be a class-based
    narrative and juxtapose it with race and immigration. Siding with immigration is siding with the interests of ‘big business’. In terms of answering your question I think it’s a bit of looking after British people and helping those poor and oppressed across the world. However, I don’t feel immigration is always the answer; I think there are ways to help people in the countries they live in though invading them usually isn’t one of them.

    This is why I think multiculturalism has become what I call it above. Maybe what you say is true but then, as I have said, we should not be arguing that immigrants are the problem but renewal our structural critique of the system that causes this.


  4. Matthew Huntbach says :

    It’s interesting; you are giving what in the past would be a class-based narrative and juxtapose it with race and immigration.

    Class hasn’t gone away – with growing inequality in wealth and social mobility it’s become a bigger issue than it has been for decades.

    If we won’t talk about it, we can be sure others will. The conventional political left have failed because they are more interested in striking up politically correct poses on international politics, than really being the voice of the ordinary person who doesn’t stand a chance in today’s unequal society.

    So, you know who that leaves, they are building up a narrative which is actually a class one, and uses the lines I am tentatively noting but in a way that is designed to push their underlying racist and fascist agenda.


  5. darrellgoodliffe says :


    Agreed that class hasn’t gone away. More awareness and perceptions (including self-perceptions.) I have to agree with your sentiments and alot of what you say.

    Agreed as well that this leaves the field clear for the BNP


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