Notes From the Margins…

Immigration: Labour Wades into the Gutter

  • October 13, 2014
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Within two days of the toxic Ukip eruptions in Manchester and Clacton, Ed Miliband has penned a piece in the Observer on how Labour will attempt to stop them spreading.     Miliband’s op ed was probably written before the election results, since it recycles older policies, ideas and narratives which Labour has already put forward on numerous occasions earlier this year.

The essential story that Miliband wants to tell is this; hardworking people are resentful, dispairing and discontented.   They feel the country has left them behind, and Ed understands them, because Ed has a friend called Gareth who is an ordinary hardworking person and Ed understands him, so he understands everybody.   Hardworking people also feel that Labour has let them down, but Ed understands that too, even though he knows that it hasn’t really let them down.

But most of all hardworking people are ‘anxious’ and ‘concerned’ about immigration.     And Ed understands their anxieties and concerns. In fact he understands them so much that in March he described Ukip voters as ‘hardworking people’ who ‘love our country.’     But the problem is that many hardworking patriots who once voted Labour blame Labour for letting in foreign migrants who aren’t hardworking and don’t love ‘our country’, as much as they do, and now they are thinking of voting Ukip.

Well naturally Ed is worried about that, and so now he and his party are going to show that they are not afraid to   ‘talk about immigration.’     So what does Miliband want to say about it?   Well in March, he promised that

‘Labour would have controls when people arrive and leave here, we will tackle the undercutting of wages, we will ensure people in public services speak English and people need to earn their entitlements.’

Now he has this to offer:

‘I will not cede the issue of immigration to those offering fear or falsehood. So I will continue to chart a new way forward, combining stronger border controls and laws to stop the exploitation that has undermined wages of local workers, with reforms to ensure those who come here speak English and earn the right to any benefit entitlements. Such measures are part of a compelling and credible plan for Britain”s future that will restore the values people believe in contribution, responsibility, fairness to the way our country is run.’

Nothing new to see here, move along.     Except that now Ukip are much stronger and creating a snowball that is beginning to pick up Labour as well as Tory votes, and so Miliband has stepped up with his usual glassy-eyed zeal to make proposals that are steeped in fear and falsehood, and deliberately designed to placate the manufactured assumptions about immigrants and foreigners that provide Ukip with its political plankton.

Miliband’s proposals contain an implicit subtext, to the effect that ‘those who come here’ have somehow violated British concepts of ‘contribution, responsibility, fairness’ and have claimed benefits they have not earned.     This is a notion straight out of the tabloid/Ukip playbook.   It is at best a xenophobic misapprehension, and at worst a flat-out barking lie.

Again and again, research demonstrates that the majority of immigrants in the UK come here to work, and that only a minority claim benefits.     A study by UCL last year found that immigrants in the UK contributed £8.8 billion more than they received from benefits between 1995 and 2011.   Not only do immigrants generally belong to the category of ‘hardworking people’ so dear to Miliband’s heart, but some sectors of the UK economy, including the NHS, would collapse without them.

Instead of bringing this up, Miliband prefers instead to present ‘stronger border controls’ as some kind of antidote to the ‘despair and cynicism on which Ukip thrives.’     Instead of discussing the political and economic factors that have inexorably driven wages down for native and non-native workers alike, he prefers to link wage stagnation and unemployment to immigration.

As for his English language requirements; it is entirely logical and sensible that migrants to any country should learn its language if they can, from a practical point of view and also to make the process of integration easier, and it’s also sensible for the country where they settle to offer provision to facilitate this process.

So there’s a whole discussion to be had here about resources in schools and also for adults,   but that isn’t the discussion that Labour is interested in having.   It wants to show how tough it is.     And so Miliband is proposing draconian restrictions that tie public sector jobs to an ability to learn English as a panacea for ‘social cohesion’.

These demands would be seen as Johnny Foreigner at his worst if they were imposed on the 2.2 million Britons working in Europe. In the UK on the other hand, learning English has become yet another stick for politicians and the tabloids to beat immigrants over the head with, while also pandering to the ‘we want our country back’ complaints that you can’t even get on the tube without hearing foreign languages spoken.

If Miliband and the Labour Party think that this kind of talk will stop Ukip, they are very much mistaken, because all these dreadfully opportunistic contributions are likely to do is pour a few more drops of poison into the toxic and rancid ‘debate’ about immigration that demeans and shames the country, and which will only lead voters thinking of voting for Ukip that they might as well have the real thing.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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