Possibly one of the most controversial topics in Politics today (and in my opinion, by far the most interesting), the immigration debate has left mainstream parties in a degree of disarray of how best to tackle such an issue. The Lib Dems hold on to their usual notions of unabashed Liberalism by relentlessly pointing to the benefits of immigration, and playing the racist card to anyone who disagrees. The Conservatives leap on the opportunity for some votes by condemning the admittedly tarnished record of New Labour on the issue, and trump bringing migration back to “tens of thousands” so that all problems relating to it will mysteriously vanish, and London will become a flourishing 95% White British community once again. Let’s re-open the docks, hoorah!
Labour… Well. Labour are currently undergoing a policy review, but at present their motto tends to revolve around “understanding” how communities (particularly working class) feel over the issue, whilst avoiding peddling any policy ideas for fear of reprimand (except Maurice Glasman, who was unsurprisingly reprimanded after he went a little too far as to acknowledge the idea of a complete halt to immigration). And on top of all this mess, parties like the British National Party (who seem to have been temporarily replaced by the English Defence League) leech onto themes of Populism and Nationalism, courtesy of wondrous newspapers such as The Sun and The Daily Mail.
As you can see, the current state of the immigration debate is not exactly favorable. And it comes as no surprise when the debate has been dominated by an increasing polarization of views, with one side arguing that all the problems with immigration are mostly mythical, and that it has brought untold cultural and economic benefits, and the other side arguing that immigration has been a total disaster and must be drastically scaled back / halted to save our beloved British identity (and economy).
“Migrants boost the economy, provide vital services, raise academic standards and enrich our food. Let’s talk about that.”Mehdi Hasan
So rather naively, I took an external module in Immigration last year thinking that after completing and preferably passing it I would be transformed into a policy guru with the definitive answer to the immigration debate, probably along the lines of 42 (most should understand this reference, see Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy for details). Unfortunately this plan didn’t exactly materialize, and I was left dazed and further confused by just how complicated a topic it was. With problems like the Economy I can just get lost in a world of Math and fiscal prudence courtesy of Keynes and Hayek, but unfortunately with the immigration debate it has an overriding of theme of culture and that mushy realm of “feelings”.
It’s taken a while to adjust these difficult-to-measure concerns to my mindset, but for the most part I think I have had a degree of success. And it has become very apparent to me that Labour must grab the bull by the horns and conquer the debate. The economy has for now taken precedence, so they’ve got a little time to get their heads round this intricate topic, and with their never-ending policy review that has effectively isolated them from the headlines apart from the occasional “slow down the cuts”, they should take this opportunity to have a full and open discussion on the immigration issue.
“The leader of the Luton council of mosques who is in charge of 19 mosques in our town called for Shariah Law for the Islamic community in our town. That frightens me.”Tommy Robinson (AKA Steven Lennon)Founder of The English Defence League
Now when I say conquer it, I don’t mean so that they can give the Tories a darn good thrashing at the next General Election (I’m not a believer in miracles). What I mean is they are the party that has to conquer the issue for the good of the country – at the risk of sounding like a politician myself. It wasn’t in the quiet leafy suburbs of Conservative safe seats that the British National Party began to rise up on the Nationalist bandwagon and tap into public discontent over immigration. And it wasn’t on the lavishly paved streets of Mayfair (Reference – Monopoly) that the English Defense League clashed rather violently with opposition movements such as Unite Against Fascism over “Extreme Islamism”. It was in working class constituencies like Barking & Dagenham, or on the streets of multicultural Luton that these voices began to make a name for themselves.
Of course the usual polarization of views ensued where they were labeled either racist thugs or the silent majority, and all notion of a sensible debate went straight out the window at the starting line.
But I digress, the point I am trying to make is that the debate has a considerably damaging effect on Labour. It is in their seats that such Nationalism tends to take hold, with concerns over housing and jobs adding fuel to the ever rising fire of anti-immigration rhetoric within such constituencies.
One only has to glance at the excellent channel 4 documentary “The Battle for Barking” to see how immigration rippled through the political landscape in certain constituencies to completely dominate the election focus. Throw in some New Labour disillusionment for good measure and all of a sudden you’ve got Nick Griffin standing for the seat. In my overly optimistic state I would like to believe that most parties would rather have Labour win a constituency than the British National Party, and thankfully Margaret Hodge came through trumps with 24,628 votes to Nick Griffins’ 6,620.
However I would not be so overly optimistic as to use this as some sort of definitive proof that the immigration debate has been settled, and that Labour had somehow won it. Quite the opposite, Margaret Hodge spent most of her time apologizing for Labour’s record on the issue, whilst trying desperately to brandish Nick Griffin as an anti-Semitic racist that does not belong in Barking & Dagenham. This approach seemed successful to a degree, but it is simply not enough that Labour rests on the notion that “people aren’t racist to the point that they would vote for the British National Party”.
With such political disturbances dominating traditional Labour seats, it is essential that Ed Miliband tackles the issue head on, rather than tip toeing around the issue and hoping the public simply forget about how hot a topic it was during the entire New Labour government. Discussions should not be held to ransom by extremist groups under the fear that any policy changes on immigration could be viewed as simply concessions to such opinion. Labour does not have to prove its opposition to such Populist Nationalism by blindly refusing to move on its policy.
They should instead consider the fact that perhaps immigration isn’t all clear skies and 42 carat gold linings, and that there are issues to tackle that are at present leading to the rise of dangerously anti-immigration (or even anti-immigrant) rhetoric. That doesn’t have to come in the form of a blanket ban on all immigration, but they must dig deep enough to truly open the board game and find policies that deal with the very cruxes of the issue, from crime to community spirit and back again. The decline of the British National Party in the past year and the rise of the English Defence League shows that this is more than a debate on numbers; it’s about addressing culture and the British Identity.
To throw my hat in the ring, I’d consider drastically ramping up the role of community leaders seeing as everyone’s having a field day with new Localism agendas at the moment. The political gaze also needs to place a greater focus on run down communities in cities across the country that have become spikes of unemployment, with a housing situation that has become fairly dire.
Along with new local based ideas Labour also needs to go international with policy, and test the political waters across Europe for measures to try and reduce the possibilities of any spikes in immigration akin to 2004, along with measures to reduce overall flows such as fair wage pacts. Not only this but dare I say we should question the suitability of the Schengen agreement, which currently places no limit on flows between two set countries in Europe? I might even voice some support for the immigration cap whilst I’m at it, just to stir things up.
It’s a rather rag tag set of ideas, but I’m not the one who needs to develop these concepts. It is in the recesses of Labour’s various policy reviews that such ideas must be spread, so that they can learn from their mistakes and win back those who have been captured by the trumpets of anti-immigration Nationalism that resides up and down the country. I am of the opinion that a large number of such people are not in fact racist, but have been leapt upon by misleading rhetoric that has played to the issues they witness in their day to day lives. And for Labour to conquer the immigration debate, they have to address these problems, fusing all cultural, social and economic concerns into one neat policy agenda that restores faith in their ability.