We Labour members are bad at talking about immigration. Most of us realise that we’re going to need to talk about it at some point, but we try our hardest to avoid it, because we know it’s a weak point for us, and we’d rather retreat into our campaign ‘safe spaces’ of the NHS or social housing. So when immigration comes up as a campaign issue, we don’t know what to say, and we resort to responding typically by bracing ourselves for a tirade, tuning out of the conversation, or accusing the person we’re talking to of racism.
We can no longer hide behind racism as the reason for all concerns about immigration. I know it’s a comforting position from a socialist perspective, especially for those of us who see immigration as carrying enormous economic benefits and cultural enrichment for society, to write off all concerns as being due to prejudice and to deny that there are any legitimate concerns about immigration; but we have to stop it.
Through years of campaigning in our Labour heartlands, I’ve heard these arguments before. I know lots of people who hold these views, and I know what their private responses are when they have these conversations with activists.
“I disagree, I think immigrants are beneficial to society” followed by an explanation. This isn’t compelling to people. Their entire life experience points to their issues being just the plain and logical truth (more on this later) and from this point on, everything you say is just not going to be taken seriously. Worse, it could well lead to a response that anyone who has done any doorstep campaigning will be acutely aware of: them saying anything just to get you to shut up and go away.
Glossing over their concerns and/or changing the subject, usually after glazing over whilst they tell you anecdote after anecdote about how immigration is impacting negatively on them. It may be tempting to move on to a stronger subject. God knows we’ve never exactly been brilliant at campaigning when immigration is the subject being discussed, but retreating into our comfort zone (yet another NHS street stall, anyone?) tells the electorate that we can’t answer their concerns. They’ll of course assume that we don’t care about their opinions. So why should they vote for us?
“You’re racist”, or usually a nicer way of saying exactly this. OK, fair enough, there are lots of genuinely racist people out there and we hear some terrible, terrible things whilst out campaigning. But they’re a tiny minority. Think about the person you’re calling racist and what they’ve said. Are they actually racist or was this an instinctive reaction? If they’re actually racist, then fair play, but if not then you’ve told them it’s not OK to have this opinion. The thing about being called racist when you’re not a racist is that it’s hugely insulting and hurtful. You’ve just basically driven them to a more right-wing party, where their concerns will be legitimised and perhaps even enhanced.
The simple truth is this: there are too few resources – public services, jobs etc – to support the number of residents in most of our towns and cities around the country.
This truth has usually until now been approached in two different ways, with the emphasis on two different separated aspects of the same concept: too many people, too few resources. The former is the argument generally given by those on the right and in many media sources. This is the argument that’s resonated with many of those voters who are expressing their concern about immigration. It’s certainly the main reason why many of those I’ve spoken to who voted to leave the EU saw Brexit as a solution to their problems. This is now so embedded as a viewpoint that many of our voters will just not accept hearing anything else – it’s become a logical and accepted truth.
The latter is basically the standpoint against austerity, except it’s being sold with the emphasis on “too many people”. Too few resources to go round, our services are being closed and cut, our councils’ budgets are stretched too far in the face of increasing demand. Not enough NHS dentists, not enough school places, not enough social housing, not enough jobs to go round. Everything’s not enough. Headlines are using words like “swarms” and “breaking point”. The same message seems to be coming from everyone and you haven’t heard anything to the contrary that speaks to you. So what are you supposed to think?
We will not make any headway on immigration, or for that matter on austerity, as we’re used to speaking about it (after six years it’s become normalised and the public on the whole just don’t want to hear it anymore), until we bring these two strands together and understand that this is the same issue, just approached from differing perspectives.
The division that is apparent when our voters start talking about immigration has been created artificially. Immigrants, alongside benefit claimants, have become the government’s scapegoats to explain away their ideologically-driven intensive programme of public service cuts. Was immigration as big an issue for people when there were plenty of school places, plenty of jobs, no problems finding an NHS dentist or getting an appointment with a GP? This fracture in society is something that has been done to it, not something that’s happened organically.
In 2010, one of the first things the coalition government did was cut off the Migration Impact Fund, a vital source of funding for local areas to help bolster infrastructure to create cohesive communities. This funding was used across the country to help migrants settle successfully in local areas. It was cut off without mitigation. The division was created.
It’s time for us to reclaim the narrative and start talking about immigration again, accepting the simple truth that there are not enough resources to go around. The anti-austerity argument similarly is becoming stale – it can be refreshed in such a way that actually speaks to the concerns of our voters by re-framing the argument into what it is – the same argument as immigration.
The solution? What we’ve been calling for all along – adequate resources for our public services.