by Kevin Meagher
You’ve probably heard Labour politicians concede there’s a ‘perception’ that immigration is a problem and respond by saying that ‘people are not racist for being concerned about the issue’.
These are the two weaselling formulations trotted out time and again to body swerve the issue that looms large in the concerns of electors – particularly those who still vote Labour – and millions more who the party needs to win back if it ever has a hope of governing again.
Yet Labour is not serious – not at all – in trying to meet the public’s expectations. There is no concession that mass immigration has indeed been damaging for many communities and groups of workers, (albeit largely positive for the urban middle-class). Behind the platitudes – the obfuscations – the real view is clear: Immigration is an objective good. There are no downsides. You are a fool or a racist if you think there are.
Enter Jon Cruddas. The Dagenham MP and sometime policy chief to Ed Miliband, has launched a new report, Labour’s Future, Why Labour Lost in 2015 and How it Can Win Again. It argues the party needs to: ‘…stop patronising socially conservative Ukip voters and recognise the ways in which Ukip appeals to former Labour voters…’
Devastatingly, Cruddas – a former academic and not much given to hyperbole – adds: ‘Labour is becoming a toxic brand. It is perceived by voters as a party that supports an ‘open door’ approach to immigration, lacks credibility on the economy, and is a “soft touch” on welfare spending.’
‘A toxic brand’. My, how we sneer at the Tories’ lack of electoral success in the north, yet as the report points out, 43% of voters in the south said they would never vote Labour (the same figure for voters in the north who would never vote Conservative).
The report adds: ‘The full significance of this for Labour is the fact that it must win 27 seats in the south to gain a majority of one [at the next general election] on a uniform national swing…’
In recent years, Uncut has repeatedly warned the party is residing in a completely different place to the majority of voters on each of these touchstone issues. This toxic trio – immigration, welfare and economic competence – guarantees Labour permanent exile from government unless they are addressed to the public’s satisfaction. But they won’t be. This is the price for Labour becoming ‘largely a party of progressive, social liberals,’ as the Cruddas report puts it.
And, for the record, this sorry situation is not the fault of Jeremy Corbyn. Sure, he shares the basic assumptions that immigration is always wonderful, that high welfare spending is always a sign of a civilised society and that it is always right to challenge ‘the neo-liberal settlement’ rather than reassure voters on the economy; however this groupthink, in part or in whole, is widely shared. Indeed, the one thing that unites Corbyn and, say, Tony Blair, or Chuka Umunna, or Yvette Cooper, is an unqualified support for open-door immigration.
It’s on display every time Labour politicians think no-one is listening. This was Gordon Brown, caught by a television microphone describing Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy as a ‘bigoted woman’ during the 2010 election campaign. Shadow Europe minister, Pat Glass, did the same thing last week when she described a voter (courtesy of another live mic), as a ‘horrible racist’ for complaining about the impacts of immigration.
It’s this wilful disdain for the centre of gravity of public opinion that is most depressing. Why worry about the electoral consequence of the Corbynistas adopting a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament when so many in the centre of the party are willing to defy the electorate on more potent issues?
Those Labour MPs contemplating their political mortality should internalise this report and what it means. The obvious lesson is simple. If Labour doesn’t start appealing to voters who value family, tradition, work and country then the party will never – ever – win again.
And the next time candidates reach for either of those watery, disingenuous terms to avoid the public’s legitimate questioning on immigration, bear in mind just how much voters now despise you for doing so.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut