A few thoughts on Labour, immigration and identity politics - following Eastleigh by-election
The Eastleigh by-election result was concerning both for the Conservative Party and for Labour.
Here are a few quick reflections on Labour.
To make a genuine breakthrough generally, and in the South particularly, Labour needs to show that it has changed: not from New Labour specifically but from the caricatured image that the Tories and much of the media has successfully implanted in the public’s mind. This image is of a party addicted to spending money, especially via a sprawling benefits system, but it is also about identity politics.
The impression is that Labour has moved away from being a party of the needy and dispossessed to being a party specifically of minorities: of dark skin over pale, gay over straight and also – not a minority but presented as one – women over men.
Labour and many of its people give the impression that they are expressly favouring people whom a large swathe of the population perceives as not being them. It is no wonder those people turn away, especially when the more self-righteous leftists damn and hector them as being racist, sexist and homophobic for not sharing the ideology.
We could even include trade unionists as a minority, since unions have so little presence in public life nowadays beyond the public sector and the Labour Party itself. About the only time most people in London and the South become aware of them is when Bob Crow leads his train drivers out on strike.
Leading on from the general identity politics theme is that of immigration. The Government is having some success in reducing net migration towards its target of below 100,000 a year. With Lynton Crosby at the strategic helm and a Tory party desperate for good news, this will likely be trailed incessantly by Tories and their supporters right up until to the next election. They will also present the topic with clear dividing lines as clearing up a mess created specifically by Labour’s open-borders policy, and not wholly inaccurately.
Ed Miliband and many others in the upper echelons of the party have admitted Labour’s past faults in this area – and indeed Miliband is to lead on the topic next week. However large swathes of the party remain in denial about it, falling back on the default liberal-left position that being anti-racist means being pro-immigration.
Some even talk of increasing immigration again for economic reasons, not least to pay for our ageing population. The technocrats and change addicts who talk this way wilfully ignore how many ordinary people feel about the huge demographic changes that have taken place in Britain since 1997.
It is no longer the preserve of right-wing racist nut jobs to lament how, in many ways, Britain now feels like a foreign country. People, especially of older generations, feel lost and bewildered that they no longer seem to have much in common with those they live around. Language is the most obvious difference: when everyone around you seems to be speaking a language you don’t understand, your sense of ownership over place dissipates.
To stop this sentiment from festering and developing further, it is wise to place strict limits on inward migration. We need to let recent immigrants settle in and integrate rather than forcing further intensive social change of this sort on communities.
Ed Miliband and his One Nation project have some potential to address these concerns in a measured way that unites rather than divides. But the Eastleigh by-election shows that One Nation is not cutting through to the public.
My theory is that this is partly because the party as a whole does not understand and/or ultimately doesn't share it.
Labour is principally a coalition of self- and group-interests that is most comfortable drawing strict dividing lines between itself and others. One Nation is the opposite of that - it is about reaching out, bringing people in and gathering them around common causes.
It will take quite a culture change for this to become reality, and so far there is no sign of anyone in Labour trying to make that change.