Talking tough – or talking enough?
It is often said that Labour has an immigration problem and that – for some – the solution is to talk tough. I’m not sure either is true. We don’t have one problem – we have many. There is no magic form of words that will make the issue go away, whether we are speaking on a doorstep in Walthamstow or Warrington. But, equally, the solution to sounding out of touch on immigration is the same as that for any other issue – know your area and what makes it tick; and, if people are talking about an issue, make sure you’ve got something to say about it as well.
Immigration is only one issue among many that people are concerned about. Yet, too often, we have an internal debate which suggests that immigration is the only issue that matters in some areas, while we simultaneously shy away from saying anything about it when talking to voters. Imagine an area in which residents consistently refer to crime as a problem. We won’t sound convincing if we refuse to discuss crime or – worse – suggest that any person who raises any issue connected with crime is wrong for doing so. It’s the same with immigration.
In Walthamstow, I can recall only one genuinely racist resident in the last two years of being a councillor. I walked away as he shouted after me, and inwardly chuckled that the ‘gentleman’ may have chosen the wrong place to live if he didn’t like people who didn’t share his skin colour. The East End has its own set of challenges, and the lessons I have learnt may have no bearing on lessons for the rest of the country. I have found people much less concerned about the number, or type, of people coming into Britain than they are about what those people do when they get here.
This may sound trite, but it isn’t the way that we often assume an immigration discussion will pan out. We assume that it will break down to ‘open borders good’ v ‘open borders bad’, with little to say on what happens when those people get to this country. If that’s the debate that we’re having, it isn’t the one that I have found people having in Walthamstow. By my reckoning, most conversations touching on immigration fall into two categories: resources (mostly housing and health) and integration.
On resources, I have always found it best to tackle the ball and not the man. Why aren’t there enough houses? Why have waiting times at the doctor’s gone up? The issue is generally not one of skin colour or xenophobia – it is one of public services, and it should get a public services response. It’s why in Waltham Forest, we are putting a two year residency requirement on any person joining our waiting list for social housing. Residents aren’t telling us that they want British housing for British workers – they just want decent housing for people who have shown some commitment to the area.
The integration issue usually pits newer arrivals (often Somalis and Eastern Europeans) who supposedly don’t integrate against older groups who supposedly did. Often this comes down to complaints about not learning English, sending children to a narrow selection of schools and, generally, ‘keeping themselves to themselves’ a little too much. Whether there is truth in this or not (and there is a large dollop of nostalgia in there), it goes to a fundamental question about what we believe as a party. Are we happy for groups to live separate lives in the same area? Or should that leave us feeling quite uncomfortable? I tend towards the latter, so generally offer a response that, while refusing to accept the ‘some communities good, some communities bad’ division, does accept that, for an area to thrive, everyone has to muck in. We are genuinely all in it together.
If there is a message in this, it is to focus at least as much on what happens to immigrants when they get here, as on who gets here in the first place. This isn’t to ignore the ‘border question’, which is still important. In fact, the toughest question on immigration I have had is – why is the government stopping Indian PhD students coming here to study when unemployed Europeans can come here when they like? He had a point.
But it is the ‘what now?’ conversation that I have had time and again on the doorstep, turning on fears of scarce public resources and a strong feeling that a degree of integration is vital between communities. We must never become a ‘closed’ party, fearful of difference. But the answers we give to those questions determine whether we are open and realistic (and get a hearing) or open and fearful (and refuse to engage with the issue at all).
Mark Rusling is a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest and writes the Changing to Survive column
Join in the debate about how Labour should talk about immigration at The doorstep challenge: How can Labour talk about immigration?, a Progress and British Future discussion at Labour party conference on Monday 01 October at 12.45pm.
Photo: Josh McKible
campaiging, canvassing, immigration, political communication, Waltham Forest