On the Political – immigration and Chantal Mouffe’s challenge to liberal orthodoxy

I’ve found myself blathering on about immigration rather too much for my own liking lately, but it is probably the issue which best demonstrates a conceit at the core of current liberal-left politics in Britain.

We have reached a point which feels like a crescendo in the ‘debate’ on immigration, at least in terms of attention being paid, following BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson’s BBC2 programme last night, entitled 'The Truth About Immigration'.

Yet the response of mainstream liberal-left publications and their writers to this heightening of discussion and awareness has been almost universal: that we shouldn’t be having the debate at all. It is a revealing viewpoint, and offers a nice opportunity to look at the arguments of Chantal Mouffe on how liberal politics seeks to crush what she calls ‘the political’ in favour of a sort of self-styled ‘rational consensus’.

Let’s have a look at some of the arguments for suppression first.

First up is Stephen Bush, from the Labour pressure group Progress (often called the ‘Blairite’ wing of the party).

He writes: “The plain truth is that Britain needs more immigration, not less; that the coalition’s success in reducing immigration has been an utter disaster for Britain,” and “we can spend the next year and a half banging on and on about immigration. Or we can talk about the real problems that face the country.”

Then on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Alex Andreou makes a similar argument to Peter Wilby’s that I looked at before here. Andreou reckons opinions on immigration that aren’t based on statistical evidence are invalid: “We don't discuss immigration – because discussion would imply a factual basis and the exchange of logical arguments. We worry, we whine and we gossip about it.”

Now, in my opinion – which Andreou scorns as “idiotic” – worrying, whining and gossiping is a part of politics – and a perfectly legitimate one. If it is based on lived experience, there is nothing wrong with that either – I don’t see why we should only be allowed to discuss things by using statistical data and logic.  Feeling matters greatly, and it always will – however much the self-appointed and actual experts decry it as irrational and invalid for not fitting their own prejudices (for example that economic growth is of greater importance).

[N.B. It is not necessarily an indicator of much, but the comments to both Bush’s and Andreou’s articles (on left-wing websites) are overwhelmingly negative to their arguments.]

Phil Dore, on his blog ‘A Very Public Sociologist', brings in another conventional viewpoint that because the right-wing press and politicians talk about something, it is somehow invalid – while also making the classic error of equating concerns about immigration (which are held by 63% of long-term immigrants remember) with attacking and scapegoating immigrants themselves.

He says: “Years of scaremongering by the press, successive governments and opportunist politicians have ensured immigration has become nothing more than a fetid, toxic swamp. Its rotten stink permeates politics as it competes to scapegoat and appear "tough" on people who come to live and work here. Basically, it's who can fall furthest, fastest into a bottomless pit of amorality and wilful ignorance. But, apparently, all they want is an open and honest debate about immigration *innocent face*.”

All these articles and arguments come back to the same point: that we shouldn’t be discussing what opinion polls consistently raise as one of the most important issues for ... the people, ordinary people, from all races and even among immigrants themselves as we have already seen.

The basis of these arguments is that it is somehow illegitimate to discuss it. Reflecting on that, I find it staggering that we left-wingers have reached this point. The most dominant public sphere narrative on the left believes in suppressing and shouting down discussion among the masses of people we claim to represent, on one of the issues that is most important to them. This is not good.

This is where Chantal Mouffe, the admirably independent-minded left-wing political theorist, comes in.

In her short book, On the Political, Mouffe says:

The theorists who want to eliminate passions from politics and argue that democratic politics should be understood only in terms of reason, moderation and consensus are showing their lack of understanding of the dynamics of the political. They do not see that democratic politics needs to have a real purchase on people’s desires and fantasies and that, instead of opposing interests to sentiments and reason to passions, it should offer forms of identifications conducive to democratic practices.”

One of her major positive ideas is that of ‘agonism’.

Of this, she says: “While antagonism is a we/they relation in which the two sides are enemies who do not share any common ground, agonism is a we/they relation where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of their opponents. They are ‘adversaries’ not enemies. This means that, while in conflict, they see themselves as belonging to the same political association, as sharing a common symbolic space within which the conflict takes place.  We could say that the task of democracy is to transform antagonism into agonism.”

An agonistic political space would have no problems discussing immigration. I think it is quite obvious though that our current democratic culture manifests itself clearly as antagonistic on this issue. People shout at each other, get angry, make accusations and deny the legitimacy of their opponents’ opinions – not just the lefties above of course but from the right wing too.

Our democracy is much weaker because of this than it otherwise would be, something I largely blame on the mainstream liberal-left for, far too willingly, engaging in antagonistic politics, with an agenda and moral compass generally set as the opposite of its enemies – not a sensible or intelligent way to go.

In her essay Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces, Mouffe says, “Contrary to what neo-liberal ideologists would like us to believe, political questions are not mere technical issues to be solved by experts.”

But now, from the left, we have what is an essentially neo-liberal, free market ideology of ‘immigrationism’, one that delegitimizes the views of a great body of the public for being ‘wrong’ – for being ‘irrational’ – in the way they feel. 

It is a strange state of affairs when Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party and many Conservatives talk in concerned tones about the effects of immigration on low wage earners and young people in Britain while dominant left opinion privileges the rights of people from outside the country – privileging non-citizens over citizens.

We can perhaps see the changing make-up of leftist politics in these phenomena. After all, highly-paid and -qualified people are now twice as likely as those from middle and lower income families to view immigration in positive terms. Meanwhile, middle class people are now more likely to describe themselves as leftwing (36% according to this poll in 2012) than working class people (28%).


  1. As a political 'adversary' I find this a refreshing read.
    The right's rage on this issue is precisely because 'consensus' and 'taboo' has closed down debate. Consensus is all well and good when it serves the majority. On this particular subject, it no longer does and hasn't for some time. I am far more interested in hearing the likes of Stephen Bush argue his case than I am in being shouted down as a 'racist' for daring (in a 'free' society) to voice my concerns over uncontrolled immigration.

  2. Perhaps the left needs a new political party - a party which can give a voice to the many people on the left who are uncomfortable with the current status quo and don't believe that New Labour or Blarism is the answer. A new political party which can, in effect, challenge the labour party in the same way that UKIP has challenged the conservatives. Although we must not forget that Farage has attracted many ex labour supporters and the tragedy is that whilst Farage is in my opinion very charismatic and great for politics, his actual policies would not benefit the many disenchanted ex labour voters. Immigration is the only issue they would support but Farage has nothing to say about issues regarding the organisation of labour and workers rights.

    Lets just start a new political party.

    Lets start a new movement

  3. Hi Ben, as another left-leaning, social, libertarian democrat, I appreciate that you are using the immigration example, to illustrate a Taboo or PC issue crippling intelligent debate on the left. Having identified a human freedom or rights element at the core of an issue, this freedom becomes not just important but sacrosanct to the exclusion of other values, making discussion of any (c)onservative values and constrains effectively a no-no. To then admit that (C)onservative parties show greater wisdom in such matters then evokes the apoplectic knee-jerk response. (I know you've made the connection to Jonathan Haidt's work on this topic.) Facts and logic are one thing, but wisdom is something more. Conservatism has value, even to the left.

  4. I think this is a great piece but I disagree that mere emotion is a legitimate basis for an argument. The problem for me is that the left's constant cries of racism and xenophobia obscures genuine rational reasons to disagree with unfettered immigration. High immigration, especially of low skilled workers is fantastic for the rich and terrible for the working class. It means that there is no precedent for group action against employers since a) workers are entirely considered as replaceable and b) those who have come here to work from other countries are far less likely to risk striking or taking part in collective action. This is one of the main causes behind erosion of workers rights and the massive economic growth which is especially good for the well off at the expense of low-skill workers. To shut down the conversation as the left has unfortunately been doing is stopping worthy points like this from any consideration and it's incredibly frustrating.


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