Storm in a tea-cup?

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 07.34.32I 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:

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 19.29.49

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!


Better messages?

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.

22 thoughts on “Storm in a tea-cup?

  1. Which issue are ordinary voters bringing up on the doorstep and on the telephone, unbidden?

    Migration and, to a lesser extent, the lure of ukip. Europe is featuring too. The Green Party has only been mentioned twice in our constituency and rail nationalisation, a middle class issue, rarely comes up.

    I am sorry, but that is how it is.

    The vast majority of public transport users travel by bus (and rail will not be improved by change of ownership, alone). Birmingham admittedly is not Brighton, but most of the country is more Birmingham than Brighton when it comes to whether concern about the cost of rail fares is greater than bus fares. It is not. You Say Public, He Says Private, I Say, Public or Private Our Railways Are Poorly Managed & Run And before anyone asks, I cannot drive so the cost of public transport is a major issue for me!

    How are we dealing with the migration conversation? If we are able, we are seguing into how the NHS (which people care about and again raise, unbidden) would collapse without migrants. We were lambasted by some for setting out that approach in a leaked document aimed at party workers. Thankfully we did draw that advice up, because it seems to be making people think again.

    We have to start the conversation where we are not where we would like to be.

    You want to change the conversation about migration? Write to the newspapers, take part in radio phone ins, go to debates, raise the issue at each and every opportunity. And perhaps spend a lot less time preaching to the choir? I was standing at the bus stop, minding my own business, when …

    Finally, as Lloyd George observed, you may keep your principles shining bright and not get your hands on the levers of power or get them a little tarnished, get your hands on the levers of power and do something. The Left frets about the compromises it will have to make to get power and in power, the Right just focuses on getting power. No wonder they have been running the country for most of the time since 1688.

    1. I do all those things – to change the conversation. The important thing here, though, is that Labour are doing *the opposite* of changing the conversation. They’re reinforcing it, supporting it, feeding the myths and generating more xenophobia and racism. That they really don’t have to do.

      Further, do you have any evidence to suggest this actually helps? I very much doubt it – it just confirms in people’s minds that there’s a ‘problem’, and once they have that in their heads, who are they going to turn to? UKIP and the Tories. This is not only morally, ethically and economically wrong, it’s likely to be electorally counterproductive.

      1. That some people have no taste! And that, were this the USA that uses such measures alongside more scientific polling, we have a deeply embedded issue that only a credible right of centre party may address. Sometimes it takes a Nixon to go to China.

      2. A measure of control over migration is unlikely to be electorally counter productive, but a policy of unrestricted migration which is what the Green Party seems to be proposing has them polling at 5% against ukip’s no migration (their real policy) polling at 15%.

      3. It’s not the measure of control that’s electorally counterproductive, it’s sending the message that controlling immigration is one of the most important things that’s electorally counterproductive. It helps the UKIP agenda, and reinforces the false message that ‘Labour got it wrong’ in the past. Labour didn’t get it wrong. They got it wrong to say that they got it wrong!

  2. The mistake Labour made was not rolling back the Thatcherite agenda – she is on record as saying her greatest achievement was, “New Labour.” The current Labour Party needs to be radical and bold. In a country where people are afraid of “The Other” and fall for the neo-Facist UKIP lies, pandering to racism doesn’t help. If a Tory government is formed or a Tory / UKIP coalition, then Scotland will break away.

  3. On the doorstep people are talking about them coming over here, taking our jobs and claiming lots of benefit. They do not always do so, though, in the same sentence …

    ukip’s agenda was always out there, but split between a rag bag of right wing groupings, who aping their counterparts on the left were disorganised and polled poorly as a result. For the moment their support has coalesced into ukip. No surprise that people who told canvassers they used to vote BNP are now saying they will vote ukip. We have, embarrassingly, a local problem in that ward that is part of the national scene writ small. And it is the problem that the Danczuks are seeking to exploit to make waves within Labour.

    Thankfully, the Danczuks are not being taken seriously within the Labour Party. Although they do seem to be doing their damnedest to attract criticism from within it, aided by the usual suspects in the media and the Guardian. One assumes the Danczuks are looking for an excuse to defect to ukip. If they do, I hope they take Blue Labour with them.

    And therein lies the problem, I am working class, I know how much of a joke Blue Labour is and how offensive and condescending it is to the working class en masse, but it is salutary to remember that Labour passed the first Race Relations Act without any reference to the key areas of employment and housing. It took Roy Jenkins, a liberal of working class birth to bring in a bill to give the legislation relevance to the average person of non white, British descent, a definition which confusingly for some includes the Irish. His bill was opposed by the CBI, perhaps not unsurprisingly, but also by the TUC.

    The Labour Party’s activists are almost always to the left of much of its support and we are always too busy to sit down and try to remedy that. In the case of the RRA 1976, you and I know it covered race discrimination whoever commits the act and whomever is on the receiving end. Too many people think white people were not covered by the Act, except as people being accused of discrimination. And do not get me started on who was covered by the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. If there is a British trait then it is only addressing to seek these misconceptions when they are pressing.

    One other point, white migrants from Eastern Europe locally stand out because they are white and quite often not speaking English amongst themselves. We are used to people of non white descent speaking languages other than English to the point where it goes almost unnoticed and unremarked. Add in the fact that Eastern European migrants are locally not clustered in the traditional entrepôts for migrants and you have a group of groups of migrants with a high profile scattered thinly across a population of one million. And some of that scattering is in traditional working class areas with high levels of unemployment which is here the BNP has done well even very recently. For them, migration is just wrong.

    Just to confuse matters, ukip’s support seems greatest where migration is lowest and someone from a few miles down the road is seen as a stranger. Quite often this support is found in rural areas where Britons of non white descent are regarded suspiciously.

    I take all your points, but 27 years of predominantly working with average voters looking for work suggests that for your points to be accepted requires a degree of political and economic education unachievable within a General Election campaign and by one political party over a five year Parliament. We would need much more support from the media.

    Time to go out now to help some average voters, regardless of their politics, to get their due from DWP, their local council … May be they will vote for us because we do that.

    One can but hope!

  4. One other point, white migrants from Eastern Europe locally stand out because they are white and quite often not speaking English amongst themselves. We are used to people of non white descent speaking languages other than English to the point where it goes almost unnoticed and unremarked.

    100 Years Ago
    [In July 1979, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] said that “with some exceptions there had been no humanitarian case for accepting 1.5 million immigrants from south Asia and elsewhere. It was essential to draw a line somewhere”. [Deputy Prime Minister] Mr Whitelaw entered the debate, suggesting to the prime minister that refugees were a different matter to immigrants in general. He said that according to letters he had received, opinion favoured the accepting of more of the Vietnamese refugees. Lady Thatcher responded that “in her view all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes” … “She thought it quite wrong that immigrants should be given council housing whereas white citizens were not.”

    Lady Thatcher asked what the implications of such a move could be given that an exodus of the white population from Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – was expected once majority rule was established. She made clear, however, that she had “less objection to refugees such as Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians, since they could more easily be assimilated into British society”.
    Emphasis added.

    1979: obviously Asians are harder to assimilate than Poles – they’re so different!
    2015: obviously Poles are harder to assimilate than Asians – they’re not different enough!

    1. I am not a Thatcherite and I am opposed to asking people to assimilate. If they want to do so then that is a matter for individuals. I very much favour integration. Moreever, I take a dim view of white flight from places like South Africa and Zimbabwe. Evidence from my DWP days suggests they tend to move money overseas before doing so.

      My point was that here in Birmingham white people speaking other than English tend to stand out. They also tend to stand out when they speak English, because on average they speak it better than the locals!

      White Europeans are a very visible minority in a city of minorities and, courtesy of the explosion in private property for rent since 1979, they are very thinly spread across most of Birmingham. As a consequence, people may easily form the opinion that there are many European migrants here than is actually the case.

      1. How can White Europeans possibly be more ‘visible’ than multiple non-White minorities in a White-majority city?

        I’m not denying that people do think like this, I’m just suggesting that there’s no logic to it other than the logic of racism.

      2. Perhaps I should have said audible presence.

        Around the corner from where I live, the National Front, the British National Party, a splinter group of the NF, ukip and a ukip lite Tory Party have all in recent years campaigned in an almost all white, working class Ward. Even people of non white descent born in UK do not venture there much, although the times they are changing on that front, finally. However, Eastern European migrants, new arrivals, are renting in the area. Migrants have never done that in the past.

        I talk much more about the Ward herein and, elsewhere on my blog about related issues, for example, Hogwarts, National Trust Afternoon Tea, Rainy Bank Holidays and Steam Locomotives

        I am not condoning these attitudes, but seeking to understand and explain them. I am afraid the migration is wonderful (stick your fingers in your ears) etc approach will not change hearts and minds, unless those advocating it address the concerns of those not sharing that view.

        Perception is reality, even if there is very little evidence to support that perception. And you are not going to change the perception by saying let us have uncontrolled migration. Although, of course, we tightly control non EU migration and I do not see anyone campaigning to relax that regime, except certain interest groups, often from the world of business.

        Local restaurateurs seeking to recruit staff from outside of the EU are a good example and they have been doing so to exploit that group. They have integrated as they are honouring a century or more old tradition of poaching staff from other businesses! Only now the businesses may be half way around the world! Confusingly for some, they were recruiting from abroad, because if they did not do so then they would have to offer better pay, terms and conditions to local jobseekers, including from the rest of EU. Now they have little or no choice but to do so, because of migration controls.

        I am happy to provide background to the content of the above paragraph.

      3. Presumably the Eastern European migrants are renting in that area because nobody’s put up any signs saying “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Poles” – and if they do pick up any signals of racism they probably think it won’t apply to them as White Christians (as indeed it wouldn’t have 30 years ago). Poor unsuspecting fools.

        A question for you: if you can’t change an evidence-free ‘perception’ by dismissing it, and you can’t change it by citing evidence, how can you change it? Pandering to it doesn’t seem like a good start.

    1. As the pingback says (if Paul doesn’t delete it), my reply to John got a bit long, so I’ve continued the conversation over here. Bonus points for sourcing the title.

  5. “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.”

    This summarises everything about the immigration debate for me – immigration, which more often than not develops into a border-line racist discourse, is prominent in predominately British areas with low levels of immigration. I grew up in inner city Nottingham which is very multi-cultural, and I have encountered the full circle of ethnic diversity through my upbringing and education. It couldn’t have benefited me more in terms of experience and interaction with different groups of people from different cultures external to GB. I have found the emphasis on the immigration issue has insensibly bordered on a racist issue in the past few years; we shouldn’t be focusing on the negativity surrounding immigration, we should be emphasising the cultural awareness and benefits ordinary British people receive, forcing them to look outside of a ‘closed box’ as opposed to falling victim to the scare mongering of UKIP.

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