The failure of the left to answer public fears around immigration has allowed the right to dominate the issue. Labour has to reclaim both the debate and its lost support, says Antony Tucker.
For too long now, immigration has been seen as an issue by many on the left as one which concerns only the intolerant right of British politics. The result has been a steady ignorance of the public’s concerns about the subject, denying that any worries or concerns about social cohesion or integration can be expressed by anyone without recourse to racism or hatred. This snobbish, aloof attitude has simply led to public support haemorrhaging from the left to the increasingly nationalistic right, not from hope but from desperation. A new left wing synthesis of ideas needs to be born, one which highlights the utter failure of the right’s vitriolic hatred of immigrants to reduce immigration but that also addresses the fears of the electorate.
In the UK today, immigration is the chief concern of voters. Without a doubt, we enjoy net benefits as a result of inward migration to Britain; yet by denying that this phenomenon can create any problems at all is dogmatic and blind. Patting the electorate on the head and telling them that everything will be alright is patronising, whilst insinuating that concern over the cultural and social impacts of immigration is the same as racism is fundamentally offensive and disgusts the very voters the left seek to win. The current approaches of both left and right are failing to solve the issues around immigration, fuelling public anger and disillusionment towards our parties and immigrants themselves.
First things first: the right are wrong on immigration – wholly, completely and profoundly wrong. Despite all the lies and hatred emanating from the Conservatives and Ukip around the subject, we have seen no reduction in inward migration whatsoever. By painting immigrants as a criminal underclass who simultaneously take all the jobs whilst claiming unemployment allowances (despite not speaking a word of English), the nationalist right have stoked racial tensions and unleashed a wave of xenophobia that undermines our relations with our European partners. “Hatred breeds hatred”, and Britain is being poisoned as a result – yet the stated aim of many on the right – deterring migrants – has not been met, as immigration does not decrease. So why then do the Conservatives and Ukip earn so much more public support around immigration, considering the failure of their approach? The answer is simple: even though the right engage with the debate in an intolerant, vitriolic way, the left have failed to engage with it at all.
The atmosphere of denial that dominates the left today has led (mainly) working class, “core” Labour voters to abandon the party out of desperation, whilst the snobbish and aloof attitudes of men like Miliband, Corbyn and McDonnell makes the left seem ever more out of touch. Half-baked attempts to out-Ukip the right at the general election (i.e. that damn mug above) simply disillusioned many on the left and convinced nobody to return to the Labour fold. Since then, the regression of ideas that Corbyn has marshalled has only made the problem worse, with the shadow chancellor’s pipedreams of a world without borders alarming the millions concerned about the current pressure on Europe’s borders. We on the left cannot and should not surrender the debate to the hatred and intolerance of the right – but the current policies of denial have failed and must be reformed.
Here is prime ground for the forces, principles and ideas of the left to come into play. We can reduce our need for immigration in myriad ways that allow us to condemn the hatred of the right, demonstrating to the electorate that pillorying immigrants achieves nothing. Instead, more vocational training in the trades that business demands will cut our skills shortage. The right blames immigrants for the housing crisis created by Conservative governments, despite the fact that we have to rely on foreign labour to build many of our new homes in the first place. Better childcare will free hundreds of thousands of parents to return to the workforce and start earning and paying more tax once more. Why do we force so many people (still often women) to abandon employment, and then rely on immigration to solve a problem we create for ourselves? Equally provision of better allowances to reward large families and a supply of affordable, four-bedroom homes will cut the cost of raising a family and allow us to rebalance our rapidly ageing demographics – only made worse by recent reductions in child benefit by the Conservatives. Legitimate fears of integration and social cohesion can be solved best by decentralising power away from Westminster and handing it back to local communities, in the form of educational and cultural provision. Where to start in changing our approach to immigration? Firstly, we need to counter the lies of the right. Immigration is not a disease; it is the symptom of a severe labour shortage and a lack of skilled people in Britain today. For the last seventy years, we have seen mass migration into this country which has allowed successive governments to paper over the cracks of a systematic failure to support training, skills or child raising. Thanks to immigrants, this country is wealthy and powerful despite an ageing population and the resultant severe demographic challenges.
This synthesis of ideas, accepting the anxieties of the public and finding new ways to answer them, is what radicalism truly means. Reliance on imported labour is a sign of systematic failures in how our country works. This will not be solved by stoking the hellish furnaces of racial hatred, as the right seem to think; nor can the far-left dogma of denial assuage the fears of the voters. No longer can we afford to paper over the cracks in our economy with mass immigration – we on the left must grit our teeth and fix the systematic problems in training, welfare and demographics that cause our dramatic shortages of workers.
If we don’t, then the right will continue to dominate the debate and our approach to immigration. Politics is not about saying the right things; it is about taking the right actions – impossible if we on the left condemn ourselves to opposition for failing to listen to the concerns so many have about immigration. To win in 2020, we cannot simply talk to ourselves about what we like to think about the world; we need to grasp the thorns on the rose, reconnect with the experiences of the electorate, solve the fundamental flaws in our country’s workings and consign the prejudiced approach of the right to the gutter where it belongs.