The rise of Brexit and Trump means Labour must deal with ‘very real concerns’, writes Stephen Bush
While it is overly simplistic to see the triumph of Donald Trump as only the American progressives’ film adaptation of the European left’s novel, it bore some of the hallmarks of the continental original. The left ran up the score in cities, among affluent liberals and ethnic minorities of all wage brackets and public sector workers. It was buried by a tide of reaction from the countryside and small towns, including some upon which the left used to instinctively rely. It attested to the weaknesses of the once hegemonic Third Way, which at the turn of the century dominated the scene in the White House, Downing Street and the Bundestag. And discontent over immigration ran through it.
There are differences, too. Once all the votes are counted, Hillary Clinton will have a bigger lead over Trump in the popular vote than ‘Leave’ got over ‘Remain’. The electoral college means, however that her performance looks more similar to the poleaxed social democrats of Europe and Britain than it was. And white American unease over immigration is coupled with racial resentment of African Americans, which has tended to result in breakthroughs for black America being followed by counter-revolutions by white America. Reconstruction after the civil war was followed by the re-establishment of white supremacy across the south. The passage of the Civil Rights Act presaged the triumph of Richard Nixon and a period in which the Republicans occupied the White House for 20 years of the next quarter-century. In hindsight, how could the black president be followed by anyone other than the birther president?
In Britain, race is a more porous concept – witness the Irish, who few now regard as anything other than white, but in the 1950s and 1960s were treated as a separate race just as much as Carribbean immigrants were – than it is on the other side of the Atlantic, which means that some of the Democrats’ difficulties do not apply to the Labour party, and vice versa.
Nonetheless, no one would now deny that Labour has an immigration problem. One shadow cabinet ally of Jeremy Corbyn describes it as an ‘existential threat’. Clive Lewis, in a moment of what one ally describes as ‘thinking aloud’ rather than policy shift, proposed that only immigrants who are due-paying trade unionists should be able to come to Britain. And before the age of Corbyn, Ed Miliband promised to ‘bear down’ on immigration and even went so far as to produce bric-a-brac promising ‘controls on immigration’.
Then there is a swathe of Labour politicians, ranging both from the party’s leftiest fringes to the outer reaches of its right, all saying, very solemnly, that the party has to deal with the ‘very real concerns’ of voters concerned about immigration.
Before Britain’s Brexit vote, all of this used to run into the same problem – you cannot meaningfully promise to reduce migration, or even to grant British voters meaningful control over immigration while being part of the European single market, and you could not leave the single market without crippling the British economy.
It was not the only problem that blue Labour – briefly the flavour of the month first for Miliband, and later for some Blairites, who became very excited about a fusion of ‘New and blue’ – faced, but that its adherents tended to look shifty and mumble a bit whenever they were asked how they had keep their promises on immigration and keep Britain in the European Union did not help.
Equally, the question of what, exactly, listening to people’s ‘very real concerns’ over border control means while still remaining a member of the EU defeated most of Labour’s senior politicians in 2015. Miliband’s solution was to go into the election with a welfare policy disguised as an immigration one – to prevent migrants claiming benefits for two years after arriving in Britain. As the number of Poles on the dole has always been fairly exiguous, there is an interesting debate to be had about whether this policy was punitive, or simply meaningless, but in either case, it failed to convince at the ballot box. His shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, preferred the route of promising action on migration that could not be met inside the EU and hoping no one would notice the contradiction. That approach failed to convince internally in 2015 and flopped externally, when repeated, in the referendum campaign in 2016.
One of the few positives to come out of Brexit, however, is that Labour can go into the next election promising serious caps on migration and strict border control, particularly as it looks increasingly likely that both Theresa May and the 27 remaining nations of the EU favour a hard Brexit that takes Britain out of not only the EU proper but the single market as well.
This is a hefty cloud, but comes with the silver lining that Labour can promise what it likes on immigration. The loud calls from both its voters and its senior politicians for a tougher position on migration can, at last, be heard.
There is just one small problem. Elections can change many things – the condition of a housing estate, the freedom of a people, the trajectory of a nation. But they cannot change the facts. Trump did not become a suitable candidate for the presidency by dint of 290 electoral college votes. The needs of the British economy did not become any less reliant on single market membership to rumble along just because 17 million people voted to leave the EU.
Many in the Labour party seem to believe that they have no choice but to go into the next election promising to wreck the economy – because that is what people voted for. But arguments should not always be abandoned just because they are lost. The truth remains that you cannot have an economy that works for working people, in May’s phrase, if you do not have an economy that works first. Regardless of Brexit, that remains the case in the United Kingdom, and that has to come first. There might be a future for Labour that involves winning elections on platforms that knacker the economy, it is just not a very successful one.
So where does that leave the left and its immigration problem? It might help if the party stopped talking about those ‘very real concerns’ and started to listen to them, and I mean really listen. If someone who lives somewhere untouched by Eastern European immigration but with a sizeable second generation Pakistani community says the area has been ‘swamped’ by immigration, the appropriate response probably is not to reduce the ability of Poles and Latvians to move to London. If the ‘problem’ is children speaking Lithuanian at the school gate, the solution probably is not a higher minimum wage.
Of course, the solutions to those problems might not be ones Labour wants to contemplate. Others, like a more proactive approach to integration, or even the fluffier elements of blue Labour, might be more attractive, though the idea that a tombola or Jubilee-themed street party will fix the party’s immigration woes seems more like wishful thinking than strategy. It is, at least, wishful thinking with the redeeming feature of being relevant to the actual problem.
When we talk about real concerns, it might be an idea to have paid attention to what those concerns are first – and whether we really think we ought to be in the business of addressing, rather than repudiating them.
Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and a contributing editor to Progress
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