Eek! Apparently we cant talk about immigration. There is apparently a plot (presumably by the PC brigade) are at fault that is causing a massive Omertà in which there CAN BE NO DISCUSSION OF IMMIGRATION.
Well apparently anyway. I’m guessing the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph didn’t get the memo. Neither did our TV networks. Or I suppose any of our political parties. Or people you meet in pubs…
Hang on, actually loads of people talk about immigration all the time. And in many ways it dominates parts of the British political agenda and has done so for generations.
And as I write this it is dominating the news agenda because our wonderful “man of the people” PM has today tried to rally his troops by giving a borderline BNP speech controversial call to arms to the Tory right over immigration.
As is often the case when the Right want to talk about immigration many of us on the left find it a little difficult to position ourselves. It isn’t a difficult topic for the right but it is for us.
Often it seems our instinct is to both believe, and to say, that anyone who has concerns around immigration and anyone who wants to talk about the issue are racists or at least motivated by subtle racism. The problem for the left, and for Labour is the uncomfortable truth that this often puts us on the other side of the argument from our supporters. Further it just isn’t true.
It is a real challenge for the left to find a way of acknowledging some of the real and legitimate concerns that can motivate people around this issue. That communities can sometimes change very rapidly and in a way people find hard to understand when large numbers of immigrants move into an area is very real. That changing the number of people, and their demographics in a small area will effect the provision of services and division of resources is clearly a fact.
Many people, and Labour supporters and Trade Union members at that, will have many entirely justifiable concerns around these issues. And having concerns about these things does not make one a racist, and these feelings are not necessarily motivated out of racism. If the left is to be successful we have to find a narrative around these issues that acknowledges these concerns but is consistent with our values around diversity and equality. It is a fine line that I feel New Labour often got wrong (from both ends) in office.
However if you thought those last couple of paragraphs were clearly leading up to a big “but”, then you would be absolutely spot on. I have a massive issue with the demonstrably false notion that “no one can talk about immigration without fear of being categorised a racist”. It isn’t true; people are parties have talked openly about immigration for decades.
My big problem is that actually this just often serves as cover for feelings, thoughts and policies around immigration that are plain racist and motivated out of racism. I don’t really see how anyone can seriously argue that a big motivating factor around why immigration is an issue isn’t in some respects racism.
The vile lies and propaganda that the Daily Heil and the Express, around immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants (and frankly British Muslims) and anyone else they define as “other” or “different” is almost entirely fuelled by bigotry and racism. I have to be honest I don’t think I have ever heard a complaint made in seriousness about white, English speaking immigrants from Australia, America, Canada, South Africa or New Zealand living in the UK.
Let’s be honest here David Cameron almost certainly isn’t a racist (I doubt many of the metropolitan Notting Hill set Tories are). But by making this speech today he is hoping to drum up support from “Monday Club” Tories who probably think along the lines of Alan Clark and his famous “Send them back to Bongo Bongo Land” quote. He might not be a racist but he damn sure wants to appeal to racists, and he damn sure wants racists to vote Conservative. This is immoral and unacceptable politics and the left just has to be on the side of the angels on this issue.
It leaves us with a troubling conundrum. How exactly do we tackle a complex policy issue that arises fierce passions across the electorate in a way that chimes with our supporters and potential supporters which is consistent with our values? The truth is I do not know. But I am pretty sure that in government Labour did not do well out of the “arms race” with the Tories and the right wing press that David Blunkett and Jack Straw tried to engage in. We need new, and intellectually robust thinking on this and we will probably need it quickly.
When the Mrs Duffy stuff happened to Gordon Brown it was something that had been waiting to happen. The intellectual left has utterly lost touch on this issue in so many ways (and frankly i’d count myself as one of those who is out of touch and doesn’t have the answers). We don’t know how to talk to the white working classes on the issue, Labour and the left have to find a way. Otherwise the agenda will continue to be set by the right. And that is the worst of all worlds.