I have to admit, I was one of the ‘lefties’ upset by the ‘controls on immigration tea cup’ over the weekend. Maybe I got too upset – some Labour stalwarts said it was a ‘storm in a tea cup’, others that I was missing the point in a number of ways. Maybe the fact that I’m married to an immigrant makes me extra-sensitive to this kind of issue – or perhaps it makes me more aware of the impact of the UKIP agenda really is.
Others told me ‘it’s just one of the pledges, we do mugs for all the pledges’ – to which I say that’s the bigger, and even worse point. Why is controlling immigration one of Labour’s five pledges at all? To start with all the evidence suggests that immigration isn’t really a ‘problem’, except in the false agenda driven by the likes of UKIP and the Daily Mail. ‘Health tourism’ and ‘benefits tourism’ are scare stories with no basis in fact – migrants use the health service and benefits system less than average, and indeed are critical for the success of the NHS. Migrants contribute more to the economy than they take out of it. They don’t even have an effect on local wages and jobs – the evidence as it is gathered and analysed is increasingly clear. No surprise, then, that anti-immigrant feeling is stronger in places with fewer immigrants, who haven’t experienced the reality of immigration to see that the scare stories are just that: scare stories.
I was even told yesterday that the five pledges aren’t actually Labour’s priorities, just pledges – but be serious, it’s all about the message. These are five simple message to be put on post cards and billboards as well as mugs. Of course they’re intended to show Labour’s priorities – which is why having ‘controls on immigration’ on one is so disappointing. Labour could have chosen any number of alternatives. Here are the original five:
Now I’m not wildly happy with any of them except the third – the first one smacks a little bit of austerity, the second uses that overused and exclusionary phrase ‘working families’, and the last is ultimately pretty meaningless – but it’s the fourth that’s the real problem – so here are seven alternative suggestions for pledge number four, some of which are based on actual Labour policies.
1: Build more homes
Build 200,000 genuinely affordable homes every year – we have a real and growing housing crisis, and it’s not caused by immigration but by a dysfunctional housing market and not enough building. Labour knows this – why not talk about this rather than dog-whistling for education
2: Make education work for everyone
Michael Gove (and now Nicky Morgan) have done huge amounts to damage the education system, to lower teachers’ morale, to shift scarce resources from where they’re needed to where there are already enough schools – Labour will repair that damage, support teachers and help rebuild the education system after five years of destruction
3: Make tax fair!
For too long have tax avoiders and tax evaders – whether they be individuals or companies – been able to make ‘little people’ pay more than they can afford while they, the tax avoiders and evaders, find ways out. Labour will tighten the rules, make sure those that who can afford it do pay their share, and make the whole tax system fairer.
4: Control energy prices
Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze was a very popular policy – and Labour have promised a complete review of the energy market. Let’s do it, and make sure that the energy companies no longer have the scope to take advantage of consumers.
5: Nationalise the railways
Labour has been making tentative steps towards this seemingly popular and effective policy – why not go the whole hog, and shout about it too!
6: Restore access to justice
The damage to our legal system – and particularly to our legal aid system – by Chris Grayling has been one of the most devastating of any area of government. On the anniversary of Magna Carta (and all the myths around it) surely access to justice can be made into a message that hits home?
7: Protect the vulnerable
Yes, I realise this isn’t popular in the days of acceptance by Rachel Reeves of the scrounger/striver agenda, but shouldn’t Labour be the party that does protect vulnerable people? Isn’t that part of the point? From the Bedroom tax to the WCA, from the leaked £12 billion planned cuts, vulnerable people and their carers have been hit hideously hard by this government – surely Labour can take a stand and protect them!
Wouldn’t any of these seven look far, far better on a mug than ‘controls on immigration’? Aren’t the underlying issues – housing, education, tax, energy (and cost of living), transport, justice and social security – more important than immigration, particularly when immigration is actually beneficial not harmful? I haven’t dared suggest ‘Civil Liberties’ on a mug, as that would clearly be pushing Labour too far, but why not one of these?
Sadly, I think we know why not. This really is dog whistle politics, and pandering to racism and xenophobia – which is why I was upset in the first place. A storm in a tea cup? Perhaps. But tea cups matter, as do the messages on them.