Labour’s recent decision to make an ‘immigration mug’ emblazoned with the party’s plans to place ‘controls on immigration’ was ill-advised and misguided at best.
Few within Labour’s own ranks really believe the commitment will be taken seriously, given repeated assurances that an EU referendum is not on the cards. As it stands, the details of the policy are vague enough to assuage fears of it being implemented to any severe extent. As a pro-immigration Labour supporter, I’m yet to lose sleep over it.
There’s no need to labour the point when it comes to immigration (see what I did there). The reality speaks for itself: the NHS, houses, infrastructure, public service after public service. We are a country built by immigrants and to pretend otherwise is just plain wrong.
But the reaction of the Greens, Lib Dems and much of the left to ‘mug-gate’ speaks of a more troubling trend in politics. When members of these parties, by-and-large educated and middle class, denounce Labour for simply wanting to talk about immigration, they offer a frank “fuck you” to large portion of the electorate.
As an activist, I knock on doors every weekend to ask people what their concerns are and to try and tell them in earnest what Labour can offer them. Fellow lefties reading this may choose to forget they ever read this next clause, but it’s no exaggeration to say that immigration is raised as concern No. 1 on every other door I knock. Much of this is admittedly to do with misinformation put about by the Murdoch Press and the readiness of UKIP to exploit the legitimate concerns of working people and offer a scapegoat.
But none of that changes one simple fact: the concern is real, even if we know that, factually speaking, it, um, isn’t. In fact it’s so real, it’s every other door. The concerns and worries of voters are as valid as people feel them to be. That may sound twee, but it’s producing the all-too-real effect of people voting UKIP, and we’ll see just how twee that ends up.
The point I’m getting at here is that this isn’t always your caricatural white-van-man/image-from-Rochester/St George’s Flag-brandishing Ukipper. People who hold these concerns are good people, people who want the best for their families. When the Greens and the Lib Dems, for that matter, denounce Labour as silly, juvenile and sometimes racist for choosing to talk about immigration, they forget that to do so is to ridicule a huge number of hard-working people, who, partly through experience and partly through misinformation, have come to view immigration as a problem.
It is, after all, far too easy to ponder the complexities and nuances of the immigration debate when you’re spared the task of worrying about whether or not you’re going to opt to ‘heat’ or ‘eat’ that particular evening. Finding yourself unemployed because someone else is working your job for less than the minimum wage is surely a kick in the teeth that those of us in a position of relative privilege daren’t imagine.
This is also a problem that the student left must confront. We are all too happy to spend time with our heads in books, join marches and sit-ins with other intellectual lefties (all valuable pursuits, don’t get me wrong) yet spend minimal time actually engaging with voters outside of the ‘bubble’, and employing perhaps the most crucial, and often-lacking skill in politics, listening. Preaching false-consciousness just doesn’t cut it, and quite frankly, it’s both intellectually lazy and insulting.
I’m reminded of a story I was once told about a Green Party candidate, who, after losing to Labour in a council election, moaned that the party had deliberately mobilised its core vote, or as the candidate put it, “those people in tower blocks”. For the Greens, “those people” are secondary to the fight. They are functionaries in the revolutionary endgame, statistics who make for a neat argument, yet whose living standards, wages and lives the Greens would readily compromise in the name of grinding out a better election result.
Yes, the Labour Party’s immigration policy could be improved. The mug gaffe was avoidable, and I won’t be buying it. But for the Green Party and Lib Dems to mock Labour purely for talking about immigration is also to laugh from on high at a great proportion of the electorate, people who unlike many of ourselves, will never have the chance to go to elite universities, to engage in debates, or to read and to benefit from the limitless horizon-broadening of education.
Let’s combat misinformation on immigration. Let’s tackle racism, prejudice and all oppression - and that includes class oppression too - wherever we find it. But classism is a thing too. Poking fun at how ill-informed and prejudiced the working classes are for worrying about immigration doesn’t solve anything.