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…