Yesterday Ed Miliband made another step in reframing Labour's position on immigration. With Ukip surging in the polls and likely to come first in next year's European elections, and the media already beginning their racist attacks on Bulgarians and Romanians, Labour has a choice. They can follow the Conservatives in drifting to the right in the hope of choking off Ukip support or they can offer a positive, more progressive alternative that deals with concerns over immigration but in a wider context.
Yesterday Ed Miliband made another step in reframing Labour’s position on immigration.
Admitting Labour got it wrong in allowing too many unskilled migrants into the UK during its time in office, he also sought to focus on unscrupulous employers and lax and unenforced laws.
In this, he was trying to walk a very thin tightrope between being seen to be tough on immigration while protecting the vulnerable.
I understand what Ed was trying to do, just as I understand the difficult position he finds himself in. There are a lot of people in Britain who are nervous about immigration, the impact on their economic well-being and the changing face of the country.
Some of these people are clearly racist and will object to any non-white immigration at all. Others are not racist and their concerns have to be understood.
In 2011, HOPE not hate conducted a survey of attitudes to race, immigration and identity.
With more then 5,000 people asked over 90 questions, the Fear and HOPE report was one of the largest surveys on this issue. It found that 23 per cent of the population were bitterly opposed to immigration and multiculturalism.
It found an even bigger number, 28 per cent, were more relaxed about immigration and multiculturalism but concerned over future immigration for economic reasons. We called this group ‘Identity Ambivalents’ and it consisted of mainly Labour voters, public sector workers and the majority of Britain’s BME population.
My concern about Ed’s new video is not that he is talking about immigration or even trying to address people’s concerns, but rather that he is answering the wrong questions.
Labour now admits that too many unskilled migrants entered the country over the last ten years but could a Labour government really limit the numbers? Most of the unskilled migrants come from A8 countries so there is actually nothing Labour could have done about this.
They could have possibly blocked their arrival for another year or two, but given our membership of the EU this would only have been a temporary measure.
Ed quite rightly talks about enforcing the minimum wage and improving the rights of workers, and it is one of the huge failings of Labour in government that they created such a flexible and unregulated labour market that migrants and non-migrants alike could be exploited so easily.
But by linking improvements in working conditions so obviously to reducing immigration it both frames the debate as immigrants are a problem and undermines a wider, and much more positive, case for better conditions for all.
Our Fear and HOPE report found that economic pessimism was the key driver for fear. The less people saw a future for themselves and their children the more they resented newcomers.
This economic pessimism, reinforced with the sense that they are losers in this globalised world, quickly develops a cultural narrative and racist scapegoating emerges. It is no coincidence that the bulk of areas that saw strong BNP votes were those one-industry towns and communities which were on the decline.
Labour is never going to win an immigration debate by focusing solely on immigration and talk of numbers.
Firstly, after record numbers of immigrants during thirteen years in office they are not going to be believed.
Secondly, they end up making unachievable promises and so this will only reinforces distrust in them.
Thirdly, talking up the problem of immigration will alienate many of their own voters, including the more progressive Liberal Democrats who have switched party allegiance since 2010 and who Labour need if it is to win the next election.
Finally, and most importantly, they risk answering the wrong question.
If economic pessimism is the key driver, intertwined as it is with cultural anxieties of a changing world, then the answer is convincing the electorate that Labour can offer a better tomorrow for all the people of Britain, especially those who feel they are losing out from globalisation and deindustrialisation.
The immigration debate is going to become even more toxic over the next eighteen months.
With Ukip surging in the polls and likely to come first in next year’s European elections, and the media already beginning their racist attacks on Bulgarians and Romanians, Labour has a choice.
Do they follow the Conservatives in drifting to the right in the hope of choking off Ukip support or do they offer a positive, more progressive alternative that deals with concerns over immigration but in a much wider context than they are doing currently?
A wider context that involves a better economic future, restoring faith and trust in politicians and making democracy work for and involve people.
People in Guildford don’t vote BNP. The people in communities where hope is lost did.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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