For a brief moment on last Thursday’s Question Time, the cries of ‘the British people have spoken’ and ‘trigger Article 50’ were broken by a moment that verged on real political discussion. A teacher complained bitterly about the lack of “integration” of an unspecified group of migrant parents – apparently evidenced by their brazen use of a foreign language when picking their children up from school – before quickly stumbling into the usual complaints about hospital waiting times.
These complaints were countered by Laurie Penny, who asked some simple logical questions (so typical of the ‘liberal elite’). What’s wrong with people speaking in another language? What’s this got to do with hospital waiting times or school places? Faced with a challenge to his point of view, the man mumbled a response about how, in the wonderful land of yesteryear, immigrants used to integrate (‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’).
This conversation was cut short at the point it began to get interesting. It’s typical of the sort of conversations I’ve had with many people in this country (particularly in the North/Midlands) around issues of immigration, and it’s a microcosm of how the Labour party and the left can approach the issue and see off the rise of Ukip. If done correctly, this sort of discussion can be extrapolated into a strategy and a message that could help Labour to address the real problems we face. Instead of being a problem of ‘false consciousness’, the topic of immigration is our way in.
Labour’s strength at the moment is in its numbers. In areas where there was a strong Brexit vote, areas where immigration is a key issue and that Ukip are targeting, our responsibility is to go to every door and talk about immigration. Not in the Frank Field/Liz Kendall pander-to-the-right kind of way, but openly and seriously. Penny’s questioning is similar to a strategy I have found useful myself. I have put together a call centre style script as an example.
What is your biggest political issue? Immigration.
Answer 1 – Why is this a problem for you? Because mass immigration has led to loss of jobs/no houses/no school places/general pressure on services.
OK. So your problem isn’t immigrants themselves, it’s the impact they have on resources, the things you and your family need? Yes. I don’t have a problem with people coming here, I just think we need to look after those people who already live here.
Do you think immigration has more of an impact than government cuts? The population of the country has grown by about 0.6% a year (insert local figure if possible), but the local council has had a 40% cut to its budget, the NHS faces real term cuts, and there’s been around a 10% cut to schools’ budgets. It seems like that’s a much bigger problem than immigration. With immigration, we have more taxpayers, and yet the government spends less money. (If possible Ukip voter): What are Ukip promising to do about this? Cut taxes?
Answer 2 – Because it’s affecting our culture/the lack of integration/that people don’t speak English.
How can we aid integration? What would it mean for someone to be integrated? Most immigrants work, pay taxes, and so on. What else is required? Speaking English, not living in separate communities, not destroying English communities…
What is an English community? Other than the pub, what social and community spaces exist for ‘British’ people, never mind for ethnic/cultural ‘integration’? A lot of British community in the North was destroyed by Thatcher with the destruction of British industry, not by immigration. What will Ukip do about this? Labour will invest billions in new British industry, and with this can come new, integrated communities. How will lower taxes rebuild community?
I am well aware that this is an over-simplification of the challenge of the debate on immigration. However, it distils two key themes I have experienced in these situations. At any point, (particularly with Answer 2), the respondent could go straight into racist, white nationalist discourse, or some nonsense about terrorism. You can’t win everyone, but it’s likely that improvements to things like hospitals and schools is the more important issue to most people. Following the Brexit vote, there was much talk of the ‘Westminster bubble’ or ‘metropolitan elite groupthink’ – this is equally true of many communities I have lived in, and the very community I was born in, around the issue of immigration. This is what we need to break.
The challenge in our doorstep discussions is to get down to what really matters to people. If you want better services, vote for the people who will invest in services. If you don’t like brown people speaking a language you don’t understand, then vote for Ukip and have crap services. The Labour party needs to engage with these voters without pandering to racism and anti-immigrant sentiments. Some people are racists, and we don’t want anything to do with them. Plenty of others bluster about immigration, but when pressed, they backtrack quickly. The example I started with comes from a teacher, someone who has presumably had a decent level of pay and a secure(ish) job – his anger was focused at people speaking a foreign language, and therefore is perhaps not worth our time. And, even if you get someone to admit this is the cause of their anger, you have at the very least cut through the bollocks about immigration and got down to the nuts and racist bolts of it all.
This is where the wider message from Labour comes in. The party needs to be defiantly pro-immigration and anti-racist. The Labour message needs to create a simple binary – what is affecting your life more – immigrants, or cuts? Who cuts your wages – immigrants, or your boss? Who destroyed your community – immigrants, or Thatcher? Who shut your hospital – immigrants, or the Tory party? And, as an important follow up – what exactly will Ukip do for you? How will rich people paying less taxes help your life? Paul Nuttall, the unreconstructed Thatcherite? You’re having a laugh.
Politics is conflict, and the most patronising thing you can do is simply accept people’s views as stated as if they are static and a simple unit to be aggregated. By questioning these positions, you take people seriously, as well as listening to what they have to say. I am not an elitist, but I do believe in my own position enough to want to convince others that anti-immigration talk is bullshit, and that the real enemy is located upwards. There’s nothing wrong with trying to change people’s minds – democracy is antagonistic. If Labour want to win, they must confront the immigration debate head on by pointing out that its reduction will only benefit racists. After this, it’s up to voters who they want to side with.