Immigration isn’t the issue

Among the political class, ‘the immigration issue’ has become code for their own fear and loathing of the white working class.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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When the political class and political commentators talk about ‘the immigration issue’ – as they did before, during and after the General Election – what do they mean?

Paradoxically, they don’t seem to mean the issue of immigration. For all the mentioning of the I-word – in the Tories’ manifesto, which claimed that a majority of British people want immigration to be ‘limited and controlled’, and in New Labour ministers’ concerns about losing support among working-class voters over ‘the immigration issue’ – there was remarkably little debate about the ins and outs of immigration. ‘Immigration rhetoric’ (as journalists started calling it) was everywhere, but you would have a tough time locating a debate about the actual number of immigrants arriving in Britain, or the role that immigration plays, much less anyone questioning whether we need border controls at all. Rhetoric – meaning language that is ‘pretentious, insincere or intellectually vacuous’ – was the operative word.

Indeed, there was a cross-party consensus about the need to limit immigration, and the only clash was over style and presentation. When Tory leader Michael Howard ratcheted up the ‘immigration rhetoric’, accusing the Labour government of ‘pussyfooting’ around the issue, Labour’s Peter Hain accused him of using ‘scurrilous, right-wing, ugly tactics’ and said Labour, not the Tories, will most effectively tackle the immigration issue (1). One newspaper editorial, headlined ‘Return of the nasty party’, agreed with Howard that it is ‘not racist to want to limit numbers [of immigrants]’, but argued that politicians ‘have a responsibility to avoid inflaming ill-informed prejudices’ (2). From right to left, there was agreement on the fundamentals of ‘the immigration issue’ and only disagreement about how to raise the issue (or whether to raise it at all).

At times, ‘the immigration issue’ looked more like a personality clash than a political debate. Old Labour minister turned newspaper columnist, Roy Hattersley, said the Tories were suffering from an ‘uncontrollable addiction’ to immigration, and said Howard had ‘returned to the subject with the wide-eyed frenzy of an alcoholic who cannot keep away from the bottle’ (3). Others responded to Howard’s rhetoric, not by initiating a proper debate or defence of immigration, but by calling for the discussion to be shut down. Asian commentator Sarfraz Manzoor argued that ‘the polarised and charged atmosphere of an election campaign is not the most suitable time to raise these questions…’ (4). On one side we had the apparently drunken ranting of an anti-immigrant Tory and on the other a demand for the silence of sobriety – and again, no debate about immigration.

It seems safe to say that ‘the immigration issue’ – which involved so little debate about the facts, figures or politics of immigration – is about something other than immigration. It is about how the political elite views the rest of us. You can see that in the Tories’ desperate attempts to connect with the public through immigration, and in the concerns of New Labour and its supporters about people’s ‘ill-informed prejudices’ being stirred up over immigration: this isn’t a discussion about the numbers coming in to Britain, but about the people who were born and live here – and about how politicians might make a connection with such people, whom they clearly consider to be a volatile mass, easily ill-informed and stirred up. ‘The immigration issue’ has become code for both the elite’s suspicion and loathing of the white working classes, and its sense of separation from the public.

There was one thing worse than Howard’s cheap attempt to make a connection with the public by claiming that we’re all worried about immigration, and that was the response of his critics. Rather than taking up his claims or positing an opposing view, they said: ‘You can’t say that.’ Yet if, as Sarfraz Manzoor claimed, ‘the polarised and charged atmosphere of an election campaign’ is not the right time to talk about immigration (or anything else for that matter), when is? Some accused Howard of ‘playing politics’ with immigration – yet surely it is the job of politicians to do politics, even to play it sometimes, and surely an election is one occasion when we should be free to debate anything and everything, however uncomfortable it makes sensitive commentators feel? Howard may be guilty of ratcheting up the rhetoric, but what his critics proposed was even worse: that the election should be polite, controversy-free, and with no ugliness allowed – in effect, that it should be a politics-free zone.

Where Howard was motivated by opportunism, his critics were motivated by a belief that Joe Public is fickle and gullible and easily led astray by dangerous and offensive rhetoric. Theirs is a demand for politicians to mind their language, lest they awake in the British public a latent desire to vote Tory or British National Party (BNP), or even to bash a few immigrants. One contributor to a BBC discussion accused Howard of potentially ‘inciting racial abuse and violence’ with his ‘negativity about immigration’; elsewhere, we read of the Tories stirring ‘the dark pond of racial strife’, and how the ‘race issue’ has been ‘wickedly stirred’ (5). When, on election night, government minister Margaret Beckett blamed ‘the immigration issue’ for losing Labour votes (even before the results had been declared), she expressed the contemptuous belief that people are easily, and cheaply, won over by anti-immigrant ranting (6).

Some seem to believe that there is a well of hatred in the UK, especially among whites of a certain class, which might be brought to the surface by the likes of Howard. They see the mass as an irrational lot, which is why they call for less charged and heated public debates – in order to keep us in line and our alleged simmering racism under control. If we really are so vile and untrustworthy, perhaps politics should be conducted, not only more quietly, but behind closed doors? That would be the logical conclusion to this left and liberal fretting over ‘the immigration issue’.

The notion that the electorate is unpredictable, and just a politician’s rant away from doing something dodgy, reveals far more about the mindset of the political class and sections of the media than it does about people’s lived reality. In the real world, whites, blacks and Asians interact all the time, especially in big cities like London and Manchester. Racial tension and expressions of public racism are much more rare than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Here, ‘the immigration issue’ expresses the political elite’s sense of separation from the public, from the very people who elect them to office: they don’t know who we are, what we are like, or what we think about various issues. To them we are a peculiar lot, with strange views; and they worry that their link to us might be severed over something like immigration. When politicians talk about ‘the immigration issue’, it expresses their fears about failing to connect with us.

Witness the internal Tory wrangling after the election, with bigwigs clashing over whether they focused too much on immigration, or not enough. Aides to Michael Howard argue that the Tories could have ‘forced Blair’s resignation’ if only they had stuck with the immigration issue in the last week of the election campaign; instead, they abandoned plans to continue focusing on it after being criticised for looking like a ‘one-issue party’. Other Tory figures, however, including one of their biggest donors, Michael Spencer, now say the party overplayed immigration, and would have better connected with the electorate through other, less negative issues (7). This is a slightly surreal debate: Tories bickering with each other over how they should have played immigration to win more support, rather than facing up to the fact that whole swathes of the country avoid voting Tory like the plague.

This tendency to focus on ‘the immigration issue’ rather than address underlying problems was perfectly captured in a handwringing post-election piece written by Labour minister Margaret Hodge. She is MP for Barking in east London. Seventeen per cent of the vote in Barking went to the BNP; yet for all the fears of a broader anti-immigration vote, across the UK the BNP’s share of the vote was 0.74 per cent, well below exit-poll expectations of three per cent (8). Hodge was clearly rattled, and wrote in the Observer about the need for Labour to ‘reconnect with its neglected and disenchanted supporters’; she argued that failing to address voters’ concerns about immigration could ‘spell trouble for many urban communities’ (9).

What comes across most powerfully in Hodge’s article is that she hasn’t got the first clue about what people in Barking are like, or why some of them vote for certain parties and others don’t vote at all. She revealed that, after the General Election of 2001, she ‘carried out research’ to find out why 54 per cent of people in Barking did not vote, and recently ‘conducted five focus groups, where we interviewed 100 residents’. She found that nine out of every 10 Barking residents think politicians are ‘out of touch’ (10). Hodge sounds more like junior TV producer than a politician, using focus groups to find out what her audience wants to hear and see rather than engaging with the people of Barking publicly and politically. Her conclusion? That ‘the immigration issue’ needs to be addressed and resolved in order to break down barriers between politicians and the people. Here, immigration is code for Hodge’s sense of utter disconnection from people in Barking – a snapshot of what the immigration issue has come to mean across British politics.

This means that politicians not only express their contempt for sections of the population through ‘the immigration issue’, but also their self-delusions. If they think that immigration can explain the chasm that exists between public life and the people today, they have another think coming.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Election 2005

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Immigration: Howard lights the touchpaper, Independent, 11 April 2005

(2) Return of the nasty party, Guardian, 11 April 2005

(3) Even Enoch didn’t stoke fears like this, Guardian, 25 April 2005

(4) It’s about feeling you belong here, Guardian, 27 April 2005

(5) Ask Michael Howard, XSelect, BBC, April 2005

(6) War and immigration blamed for setback in marginal seats, Guardian, 6 May 2005

(7) Howard: I could have ousted Blair on migrants, London Evening Standard, 9 May 2005

(8) See What did the turnout tell us?, by Jennie Bristow

(9) If Labour doesn’t listen to its heartland voters, it will lose them, Observer, 8 May 2005

(10) If Labour doesn’t listen to its heartland voters, it will lose them, Observer, 8 May 2005

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Topics Politics


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