Communities and Housing//

At last, Labour understands voters’ concerns on immigration

Written by: Ben Mitchell on 19 December, 2012
Filed under Communities and Housing, Identity and Immigration

Ed Miliband is not someone who shies away from a challenge. He has demonstrated this admirably since becoming Labour leader. Getting to grips with the thorny issue of immigration is one thing. Getting to grips with his party’s record on the subject is another. This year he has attempted to do both.

It’s surely no coincidence he chose the week of the release of the latest batch of 2011 Census stats to give his second keynote speech on the subject. Official figures showed the biggest ten-yearly increase in population since the Census’ inauguration in 1801. An additional 3.7 million people now reside in England and Wales, with net migration responsible for 55% of this rise. Inevitably, this last figure got pundits talking and heads shaking. Unsurprisingly, because Labour was in office for most of this period, it has faced a barrage of criticism and been blamed for letting immigration spiral out of control.

Miliband has already conceded that Labour got certain things wrong. He has tried to reassure those who worry about high levels of immigration; about Britain’s ability to cope with such a large influx in such a short space of time. Back in June, he told an audience, at an event organised by the think tank IPPR, that people had every right to be concerned:

“Worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration, does not make them bigots. Not in any way. They are anxious about the future.”

He admitted that his party had lost touch with the real life experiences and worries of ordinary voters, acknowledging that anxieties were wrongly dismissed:

“Quite simply, we became too disconnected from the concerns of working people. We too easily assumed those who worried about immigration were stuck in the past. Unrealistic about how things could be different. Even prejudiced.

“But Britain was experiencing the largest peacetime migration in recent history. And people’s concerns were genuine. Why didn’t we listen more?

“At least by the end of our time in office, we were too dazzled by globalisation and too sanguine about its price. By focusing too much on globalization and migration’s impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – and the people who were being squeezed.

“And, to those who lost out, Labour was too quick to say ‘like it or lump it.”

Last week, he picked up where he left off. Once again, he delivered a speech which was measured and sensible in both tone and substance. Again, he returned to the theme of voter unease:

 “We must not fall into the trap of believing that to talk about people’s anxieties is to fuel them.”

This time he touched upon social and cultural matters: the crux of the problem for many people, the trickiest to speak about, and the hardest to measure using cold empirical data.

“The capacity of our economy to absorb new migrants was greater than the capacity of some of our communities to adapt.”

“Of course immigration has always been unsettling. With new ways of life, new religions, new people in neighbourhoods. It takes time for people to get to know each other. The extent of change can intensify the anxiety.”

“But too often we were a bit optimistic. Thinking people’s connections with each other would just take care of themselves. That as long as the economy was doing well, that services were well-run, people would learn to get on together, and our common life would flourish automatically.

“And while the problems were real. Our solutions seemed too abstract. We talked about “shared citizenship”. But we did too little to tackle the realities of segregation in communities that were struggling to cope.”

Slowly but surely Labour are skilfully tackling this issue. Ed Miliband has been very careful not to demonise or caricature, but to see immigration as a complex, multi-layered topic. One which leads to a number of sub-topics. Sometimes these are incorrectly conflated but, for now, Labour has the balance about right.

Robert Ford, lecturer in Politics at Manchester University, identified the pitfalls for left wingers confronting this issue:

“Any proposal will be dismissed by commentators on the right as tokenism which does nothing to address the real issues, and by many on the left as pandering to prejudices which should be challenged. On top of this, the media will reinterpret any message on immigration and identity in terms of its own negative dominant narrative of segregation and division, regardless of whether this accurately reflects the content.” 

Over the course of last Friday, discussion was more focused on how this speech had been pre-spun, with heavy attention given towards integration, and a call for immigrants to know how to speak English, than its actual content.

Stressing that those hoping to work in publically-funded, public-facing jobs, should be proficient in English, seems about as uncontroversial a proposal as one could suggest. People doing important jobs that involve dealing with the public need to be able to properly communicate with them. And yet, there are still some on the left who won’t even accept this, seeing it as “hollow populism.”

The commentator Suzanne Moore correctly tweeted about the importance of women from immigrant groups learning English: “I want people i.e. women to speak English. Without it they are often trapped at home, dependent on children to translate.”

I have written about what one academic has called the “culturally threatened” before. What certain left wingers see as economic grievances, decades of research has found to be:

“…a perceived sense of threat to the cultural unity of the nation – rather than economic threat – that is the strongest driver of prejudice, and also the desire for more restrictive immigration and asylum policies.”

It is far easier and a lot safer to approach immigration from an economic perspective. To talk about it in terms of its effect on wages, jobs, and housing. The real challenge is to talk about it in terms of its effect on demographics and culture. Not an easy thing to capture in an opinion poll, hard to articulate, but something which people see with their own eyes. At long last, Labour seems to understand voters’ concerns on immigration.