Sunday, 29 March 2015

Taking us for mugs - Labour, immigration and a panic about kippers

Seeing this delightful mug I thought back through all my years of active involvement in politics - from smuggling Monday Club Tory, Sir Patrick Wall into a meeting of Hull students (in his own constituency) through any number of local and national elections all of which have featured at some point the implication, nay insinuation, that saying we need to 'control' immigration is tantamount to racism. Indeed that we didn't really mean 'control immigration' but rather that this was code for something worse, something nasty and sinister, something racist. Saying we needed less immigration was always portrayed by Labour as but a short step from 'send the blacks home' or some other similarly unpleasant and bigoted policy.

That was until UKIP arrived on the scene. Up to this point Labour had stuck to its guns on immigration - pointing out that, mostly and most of the time, it's good for the nation and good for the economy. Whatever we may have thought about the issue, Labour's approach and its policy while in government was very clear - even when confronted with popular concerns about too much immigration:

It is the duty of government to deal with the issues of both asylum and immigration. But they should not be exploited by a politics that, in desperation, seeks refuge in them.

There is a position around which this country can unify; that we continue to root out abuse of the asylum system, but give a place to genuine refugees; that we ensure immigration controls are effective so that the many who come, rightly and necessarily, for our economy, to work, study or visit here can do so; but that those who stay illegally are removed; but that we never use these issues as a political weapon, an instrument of division and discord.

This view - that people come here 'rightly and necessarily' - was widely supported across the country and especially welcomed by a business community struggling for skilled recruits. In simple terms Labour was pro-immigration but against the abuse of the system. Today this has changed - the Party's position (albeit a little vague) has shifted noticeably away from 'follow the rules, play by the system, and you're welcome' towards the point where control - for which we will always read reduce the numbers - outweighs and rational discussion of migration. Labour is in a panic about kippers.

Labour got things wrong on immigration in the past. But Ed Miliband has set out a new approach: controlling immigration and controlling its impacts on local communities. Britain needs immigration rules that are tough and fair.

The Tories have let people down on immigration. David Cameron promised to get immigration down to the tens of thousands, “no ifs, no buts”, but net migration is rising, not falling. It’s now at 260,000, higher than it was when David Cameron walked into Number Ten, and the Tories’ target is in tatters.

The position here is rather different - it is the Conservatives that have failed because of those (rather dumb) net migration targets and Labour will, by implication, stop the tide. But the real drive in the Labour Party for this dramatic shift in immigration policy hasn't been some sort of Damascene conversion - or maybe just a cynical one - but rather the threat perceived in some Labour heartlands from UKIP.

Ukip are not about to overturn dozens of Labour’s northern heartlands. But the result in Heywood is further evidence of the threat that Ukip poses Labour. It is one rooted in much more than the charisma of Mr Farage, but the disconnect between Labour (and all main parties) and the working-class. In 1979, there were 98 manual workers and 21 people who worked primarily in politics in Parliament. In 2010, 25 manual workers were elected to Westminster - and 90 people who had worked primarily in politics before becoming an MP. Average turnout was just 58 per cent in Labour’s 100 safest seats in 2010.

I say the threat is perceived because I see little prospect of UKIP winning any seats - they've an outside chance in Grimsby but it's a long shot - from Labour in May. But Labour activists feel the challenge - the local councillors in Bradford who saw their majorities in safe seats dwindle to a handful, the activists who get berated by ex-Labour UKIP supporters at the working man's club or the trade unionists reporting how many of their manual labour members are making UKIP sort of noises at work.

Last year in Rotherham UKIP won 10 seats in that classic Labour rotten borough of Rotherham. We know the reasons but we overlook the wider reality - across those rotten boroughs like Barnsley, Wakefield and Doncaster UKIP moved into second place and became the main challenger to Labour. And the traditional response to the "far right" (as Labour folk insist on calling nationalists) didn't work. People didn't think UKIP were racist - or at least no more racist than the Tories - and did think they had a point about immigrants, about political correctness and about local community.

The Labour people in these places had never been challenged. Or rather the challenge came from that nice bloke who owns a garage and always stands for the Conservatives. Now Labour felt threatened - branch meetings were dominated by people talking about what UKIP were doing. The poor quality (if shiny) leaflets from that party were give to councillors by folk with slightly shaking hands - "look, look - what are we going to do" exclaims the leaflet-finder. The MP is involved and, while reassuring local activists, heads off to London where he meets others with the same tales.

"We have to respond" these MPs say. "We can't be caught out on immigration. UKIP can win where the Tories never could". Party strategists (knowing full well that there's little or no chance of UKIP winning and that it's the Tories and SNP that Labour should worry about) sooth fretful MPs and dutifully inform higher-ups about their concerns. With the result that proper working-class policies are developed about 'controlling immigration' - local campaigners can point to the policy and persuade those disgruntled folk in Rawmarsh or Royton that they're best sticking with Labour.

Plus a mug. A mug that means people like me can point to Labour and say "you bunch of no good, low down hypocrites - after all those years of attacking Conservatives for wanting to control immigration, you come up with a policy important enough for you to emblazon it on a mug."

Or as someone called it - the racist mug.

The odd thing is that Labour know the numbers. They know they're not threatened by UKIP - indeed that in some places that Party's support holding up increases the chances of Labour winning. But because lots of ill-informed and panicky local councillors and activists are on about it, the Party has placed immigration controls at the heart of its election campaign. And of course on that mug.


1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

You seriously underestimate the damage UKIP can do to Labour in its traditional heartlands. They may not win any seats from Labour in the forthcoming general election, but they're on course to get a lot of second places in areas where the Tories never had a hope.

If we end up with a feeble, fractious, Labour-led government, they will be ideally placed to strike at by-elections.