by Kevin Meagher
One of the more depressing aspects of the Labour’s 2010 general election campaign was the party’s pledge to bring in an “Australian points-based system” to curb illegal immigration.
This was the party’s “line-to-take” on the doorstep – a subterfuge to be deployed when asked what Labour would do to as a fig-leaf for actually having a working immigration policy in the first place.
It was, of course, disingenuous tosh. Having presided over a decade of mass immigration, with net three million migrants coming to live here during the noughties, the real, unspun view of most people on the left is pretty clear: immigration simply doesn’t matter.
Worse, it’s a solely a hobby-horse of the angry and ignorant. It’s a view that was perfectly encapsulated in Gordon Brown’s unguarded dismissal of Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy as “that bigoted woman” when she posed an entirely reasonable question to him about the effects of high levels of migration during that same election campaign. One, if we remember, Labour didn’t win.
Others on the left believe people like Mrs. Duffy, and the million like her, are victims of black propaganda peddled by the Tory press. Strip away the right-wing “scaremongering” about immigration reveals there to be no problem whatsoever. Instantly, the first-person experiences of those at the sharp end of competing with newcomers for jobs and houses are rendered invalid. They’ve simply got it wrong. Unless they really are bigots, of course.
And yet the public doesn’t see it that way. Poll after poll tells us that the British public are concerned about the stresses mass immigration it can have on jobs, public services and community relations.
The YouGov poll that accompanied our recent book ‘Labour’s Manifesto Uncut: How to Win in 2015 and Why’ found that 78 per cent of voters felt the last Labour Government admitted “too many immigrants”. 53 per cent of this total “strongly” agreed this was the case. Just 13 per cent of voters disagreed.
The left’s cognitive dissonance with British public opinion is also borne out on welfare reform. Once again people are concerned about the costs of the benefits system and, as the see it, the general unfairness of some people drawing out far more than they ever put in.
New Shadow Welfare Secretary, Rachel Reeves, used her first interview last weekend not to harden Labour’s policy as some complained, nor to simply restate it as others insisted. She actually watered it down by moving decisively away from enshrining a stronger contributory principle in the system which her predecessor Liam Byrne had been floating, with people who have paid into the system entitled to draw out more than those who have not.
Yet we know this is increasingly the public’s view. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has reported a marked shift from voters accepting ‘societal’ explanations of poverty towards them blaming individuals for their circumstances. Back in 1994, just fifteen per cent of the public thought people lived in need because of laziness or lack of willpower. Nearly a quarter, (23 per cent), think so today.
Again, our YouGov poll found only 18 per cent of respondents thought we should be spending more as a country on welfare provision, while more than double than number – 44 per cent – thought the figure should be reduced.
Of those why think we are spending too much, 54 per cent blame the last Labour government and only five per cent blame the coalition. It can’t be restated too many times. For every voter who blames this government for the size of the benefits bill, ten more blame Labour.
People – rightly – still support the welfare state and are often deeply sympathetic to one group or another of recipients, but they believe too many others are simply not making enough effort. They know that going out to work is not a given in too many households – and they think it should be. And they simply don’t trust Labour to sort it out.
Immigration and welfare are two key strategic areas where the party is now on a different wavelength to vast numbers of the British public. So either liberal-left assumptions about these issues are wrong, or else the voters are. And that’s a strange place for a political party to be, blaming the shortcomings of the electorate or blithely ignoring what they think.
Equally, the tactic of trying to hoodwink the public with triangulated excuses about a points-based immigration system, or rattling an empty scabbard on welfare reform, has failed too.
Until Labour intellectually and emotionally accepts the public’s demand for a new settlement around these issues, the party will struggle to seal the deal with an electorate far smarter and more intuitive about politicians’ empty promises than they give them credit for.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut