The recent article entitled ‘Controlling immigration is patronising and dangerous’ is, frankly, patronising and dangerous.
I suspect the author is right about class prejudice being bound into the immigration debate. No doubt there are plenty of middle-class liberals in Islington who look to Essex and shudder. But the reason such attitudes are patronising is not that ‘concerns about immigration should be listened to.’ The problem is the underlying assumption of a mass White Working Class existing and being concerned only with bloody foreigners. You can’t reason with this class, such poisonous logic goes, because it’s not rational. It just hovers around Clacton Pier like a giant racist Kraken that can be appeased with a souvenir racist mug to have its good ol’ British builders’ cuppa in.
‘It’s not racist to talk about immigration’, says everyone. No, but a lot of those that do are racist. Attitudes towards immigration from English-speaking/’white’ countries are positive, yet negative for Asia and Africa. Whilst a majority oppose free movement of EU citizens to Britain, we don’t want to give up our free movement.
When Farage mentioned immigrants with HIV during the leaders’ debates, it seems pretty apparent that he knew the message he was communicating was not just that immigration costs the NHS money, but that immigrants spread disease. The mug was a similar dog whistle - a vapid slogan that the right people - xenophobes - were intended to hear. Coding and implication is real and dangerous.
The assumption that dismissing immigration is ‘classist’ utterly erases working class migrants. (‘Classism’ is an awful word. It implies that class differences are fine in the same way as cultural, sexuality and gender identity difference are, provided no one discriminates.) It also erases how ‘classist’ the discourse on immigration is - recently it was claimed for the umpteenth time that there were scary Muslim no-go zones in working class Whitechapel. Meanwhile the Islamic State of Qatar bought out Canary Wharf (with its private security force) at £2.5bn. Ukip’s silence was deafening. You can just about get away with being foreign as long as you’re not poor.
To turn to the much maligned ‘white working class’ – it doesn’t exist. Sure, there are working class people who are white. Many of them, for different reasons, would say they are ‘concerned about immigration.’ But the notion of a homogenous post-industrial working-class with an identity politics of whiteness based on mild xenophobia and unquestioning patriotism is nonsense that shouldn’t be given credence. It’s an abstract academic concept dreamed up in those ivory towers Ukip press release writers so hate.
If you knock on a door and someone tells you they are concerned about immigration, there are different things it could mean. One is ‘I am a racist.’ Others usually include ‘I’m concerned about overpopulation’, ‘I’ve heard that others get preferential treatment’, ‘I think there will be pressure on wages/housing/public services if immigration increases.’ Some of those viewpoints are more reasonable than others. All deserve to be challenged.
There’s a thirty page briefing paper that tells Labour canvassers to ignore immigration and change the subject if anyone raises it. They’re not free to say ‘I know you’re concerned about jobs and services, but public services aren’t static. What we need to do is invest in social housing, hospitals and education and enforce a raised minimum wage properly to ensure that no one is undercut. If you’re still concerned about housing, let’s talk about how we’d do it. If you just don’t like foreigners, you’re a racist and I don’t want your vote.’ (There was a Labour candidate who actually did the latter in Rochester in 2001.) But Labour leaders are more interested in playing on the same policy field as the Tories - cuts must be made, immigration must be controlled, but Labour will be nicer about it.
It’s tactically bankrupt as well as ethically so. If I think immigration is a top issue and a Labour canvasser agrees, then my response will go something like, ‘See, even Labour know it’s a problem, but they don’t have the guts to be as tough as necessary, so I’m still voting Ukip.’
On one hand Labour embraced tolerance and muticulturalism. They have Chuka Umunna, David Lammy and Sadiq Khan- if you’re brown and toe the party line, you can be in the Shadow Cabinet! And, as Farage et al won’t stop reminding us, they were the government of the day when the A8 countries entered the EU and immigration rose.
Yet, the last Labour government was a government of racism. This was the party whose former Immigration Minister was barred from office in 2010 for smearing his opponent in a campaign intended to ‘get the white vote angry.’
This was the party that launched two major wars in the Middle East, that presided over brutal immigration detention centres and over a London where you were 26 times more likely to get stop and searched if you were young and black . The party that stoked fears about migrants, gypsies, Muslims and so on, whilst talking the talk of multiculturalism.
So when it comes to immigration, it’s not sure what to say. There are liberal multiculturalists, working-class internationalists, neo-imperialists and reactionaries bundled into the same party. The internal debate is unresolved, so the best they can do is call Ukip racist whilst putting out a mug and promise to deny immigrants benefits for two years.
It is impossible to fight prejudice by appealing to it. We stop patronising the working class by remembering that the working class isn’t all white, and those that are white have intellects which will not be mollified by Ed Miliband telling us he feels ‘respect’ whenever a white van passes. If we want to treat even those who disagree with us on immigration with respect and dignity, we need to be challenging their opinions, not throwing them a few scraps and covering up differences in the hope that they’ll vote the way we want them to.