“The only time the pro-immigration lobby is mentioned is when it is about to be dismissed. We are told it is intellectually superior, out-of-touch and unable to talk to people about their concerns in a language they understand.
That’s the gist of Yvette Cooper’s speech today in which she tries to communicate Labour’s position on immigration. She will say the debate is polarised, with Tories and Ukip exploiting people’s fears on one hand and “liberal commentators” on the other arrogantly saying concern about immigration is irrational.
A study out tomorrow will confirm the basic groupings Cooper refers to. The excellent British Future has spent three years researching public attitudes to immigration and, more importantly, how to talk about them. I haven’t seen the report yet, but it was previewed by Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer this weekend. “The good news is that public attitudes are not as simplistically hostile as is often assumed,” he wrote. “Xenophobes who think most voters share their toxic views and liberals who fear that to be the case are both wrong. The majority of voters have a much more complex set of attitudes that are not being reflected by the party political slugfest.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper today said the immigration debate is polarised between Ukip and “liberal commentators”.
The “rejectionist minority” who would close the borders and ‘send them all back’ accounts for 25% of voters, Rawnsley said, which tallies with private suggestions by some Ukip insiders that the figure represents the uppermost electoral potential of the hard right party. On the other side are the liberal idealists, who are “happy with current levels of immigration”. They are younger, better educated, live in urban areas and are more ethnically mixed than the average voter. This group also accounts for one quarter of the public, but given the disparity between their voice and that of the anti-immigration lobby one could be forgiven for expressing surprise.
Rawnsley’s article, like Cooper’s, then goes on to discourage pro-immigration liberals from making their case. We should recognise and accept the public’s concerns, even if they are not supported by evidence.
It’s a perfectly sensible position to adopt, even if it has the disadvantage of being timid. British Future plays a vital role trying to disentangle the parts of the public debate that can be won from those which can’t and providing a more constructive and less emotional tone to the discussion.
But why should the pro-immigration lobby be told to shut up every time it is recognised? After all, it is only now we accept that it even exists. For the last few decades, this country has been dominated by the “rejectionist minority”. The public view, we are constantly told, is relentlessly and universally anti-immigration. That is the starting premise for almost every discussion of immigration you see on TV or in the press.
The anti-immigration lobby owns the tabloids, with the exception of the Mirror, and it uses that ownership to scream out lies about immigrants every week. They exercise a profound effect on the Labour and Conservative parliamentary parties, constantly pushing them to the right. Even the Lib Dems can’t be trusted to defend immigration.
Their biggest lie is that they are not dominating the debate. Almost everyone, it seems, has swallowed the myth that it was once impossible to talk about immigration. Orwell would have been impressed by the ability of really quite switched-on people to forget what politics was like a few years ago.
It is a nonsense. There was never a moment when the anti-immigration lobby was not setting people against one another. Labour may have operated a relatively liberal immigration policy, but its public relations approach was to ape the language of the tabloids and in some cases the far right.
When defence secretary Michael Fallon was criticised recently for saying immigrants were “swamping” some UK communities, he received support from an unusual quarter – former home secretary David Blunkett. He was trying to vindicate his own use of the word way back in 2002, when he said local schools were “swamped” by non-English speaking immigrants. Downing Street refused to condemn the comments at the time, saying they were “reflecting a particular context”.
Defence secretary Michael Fallon recently said immigrants were “swamping” some local communities.
At the very moment he made the comments – during the supposed height of the period in which one could apparently not discuss immigration – Labour was passing the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, which aimed to deny the children of asylum seekers the right to attend mainstream schools.
Then-shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said he would not have used the word and warned that “there is a terrible danger here of slipping into language that’s emotive”. It’s not so different to Cooper’s speech today. When in opposition, politicians urge moderation. When in government they use harsh and divisive rhetoric to try and placate the anger of the rejectionist minority.
Six years later, during the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, Labour put out a leaflet with a list of policies Edward Timpson, the Tory candidate, opposed. One read: “Do you oppose making foreign nationals carry an ID card?”
The introduction of ID cards was intended to be staggered so foreign nationals received them first, followed by the general public. Labour used this chronology to pretend they supported a BNP-style policy of mandatory ID cards for immigrants only. It tallied with Blunkett’s earlier call for immigrants to be “tracked” using the ID card system.
A model for ID cards, which were set to be introduced by Labour but killed off due to opposition.
Before the election, Gordon Brown put Phil Woolas in charge of immigration with the specific intention of placating the anger of tabloid readers. By the time the general election came, Woolas had descended to trying to win his seat by making “white folk angry“, not least by printing nonsense about Muslims – the standard emotional trigger of anti-immigration arguments.
These moments are all lost now. We are told that was a period in which to speak out against immigration was to be branded racist. It reminds me of that quote in Bladerunner: “All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain”. They never happened.
Look at how effective the anti-immigration lobby has been at making its case. The issue has crept up the list of voters’ concerns. It is now the defining indicator of whether a party is in touch with the public. Barely a day passes without Downing Street burnishing its anti-immigration credentials, which will again come to a head with a much-touted speech by David Cameron on limiting benefits for the European immigrants who anyway barely claim them. It is policy-making based on lies and dogma.
Phil Woolas was found to have misled voters about his Lib Dem opponents during the 2010 general election.
The constant efforts of the anti-immigrant lobby, backed by their powerful friends in the media and parliament, have dragged public debate ever further to the right. Now the pro-immigrant lobby is told to shut up about the evidence of economic improvement and social cohesion and pretend to accept the lies about immigration so it can take part in the debate at all.
Perhaps we should do the opposite and take a leaf out of the anti-immigrant’s book. Those who believe that immigration makes this a better country – economically, socially, culturally and politically – should make their case loudly and proudly, and let the politicians and the think tank directors make the moral and intellectual compromises necessary to have the debate on the terms of their opponents.
One tactic does not preclude the other. A more robust position from the pro-immigration minority would help shift the centre of political gravity. People might consider that fanciful. But that is exactly the lesson to be learned by decades of anti-immigrant rhetoric, during which ministers have never made the case for immigration as a social good. That’s why now, when you point out that immigration actually benefits the economy, people stare at you like you’re having a seizure.
Nigel Farage and his ilk have shifted the terms of the debate with considerable verve. Those who believe in immigration should ignore the advice to deny their own beliefs and take a page out of his book instead. We should not shut up. We should speak louder.”