In Praise of Yvette Cooper - for standing up against the paralysing ‘liberal’ consensus
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has helped ignite another of those increasingly regular cyclones of protest from our liberal-left publications about virtually any talk about immigration.
Cooper’s speech on ‘Labour’s approach to immigration’ addressed this sort of attitude head-on in her introductory passage, in which she said:
“On the one hand we now have an arms race of rhetoric involving the Tories and UKIP over immigration. UKIP are exploiting peoples’ fears, fuelling anxiety and division, and David Cameron is racing to catch up. Between them they promote the idea that immigration is all and always bad, and should always be stopped.On the other hand some liberal commentators seem to think talking about immigration at all is reactionary, and concern about immigration is irrational. They give the impression that immigration is all and always good, and should all be encouraged.Both sides shout at each other. Neither are right. And most people don’t agree with either of them.”
This language isn’t unlike some of the arguments I have been making on this blog, though I think the initial rhetoric about an ‘arms race’ between the Tories and UKIP is overblown: I’ve got no love for either party but I’ve heard virtually nothing from either of them promoting the idea that immigration is all and always bad. This is the kind of lazy accusation that we repeat to each other to reassure ourselves and then end up actually believing.
Nevertheless, the next few things Cooper said were more interesting, challenging ‘liberal commentators’, their idea that concerns about immigration are ‘irrational’ and that all immigration is good. It’s nice to see this sort of argument coming out not just from Labour’s more thoughtful backbenchers but from senior Labour shadow cabinet members, in a feverish environment in which they have virtually no support from liberal-left media and institutions.
The rest of the speech mostly reiterated existing policies and positions, though there was another good, straightforward message on EU migration: ‘Fair movement, rather than free movement’. This is a significant statement in Labour and left-wing politics, and is not a world away from the position that David Cameron holds in trying to renegotiate in the EU, though with a more friendly attitude and no threat to withdraw in Labour’s case.
The liberal-left reaction has again been remarkable in its vituperation, anger - and what I might even suggest is a degree of desperation, that despite all their pleas, this issue has not gone away. The arguments used are the familiar, well-worn ones we’ve seen many times before.
Since hardly anyone else is doing it, it’s worth going through some of the latest ones and showing how flimsy they are.
Let’s start with an editorial in The Independent newspaper: ‘Race to the Bottom on Immigration’, which damned Cooper, saying she “might have added that Labour has been so spooked by the arms race that it too has decided to join in”, adding for good measure that “immigration takes a regrettable place on every party’s agenda”.
Now undoubtedly every party is thinking about electoral dynamics and their chances heading up to the next election, but it seems just straightforwardly wrong to suggest this is purely cynical politics and just represents some sort of race to the bottom.
Labour MPs want to be re-elected and candidates want to get elected. More than eight out of 10 Britons now support a major tightening of rules on benefits and curbs on overall immigration (which is now running at a million new people net every four years, excluding illegals). Responding to real concerns is what democratic politicians do, and we should welcome it both within the Labour Party and in the media.
But those same-old counter arguments keep coming. Anoosh Chakelian of the New Statesman makes the same one, asking ‘Is Labour on the brink of an immigration arms race?’. She answers a straight ‘yes’, deriding “this country’s so-called immigration problem” and suggesting that politicians are blaming immigrants for “structural failings” like “housing shortages, low wages, and a damagingly flexible labour market, as well as anxieties about other cash-strapped public services”.
There are a couple of the most common conceits in dominant liberal-left opinion here. First up, that being concerned about immigration and its various aspects means ‘blaming immigrants’. This is dreadful and dishonest use of language that needs some evidence to back it up at least – but we never see it, or rather we generally infer the blame from...somebody not blaming. The second is that when it comes to supply and demand dynamics, only the side that doesn’t conflict with our political views matters. So housing shortages and prices going up has nothing to do with an extra four or five million people needing somewhere to live, low wages have nothing to do with extra competition from those prepared to work more for less, etc.
Pointing out these things has nothing to do with blaming immigrants, but the fact that Labour and wider liberal-left opinion sees these basics as taboo should be as alarming as it is unsurprising. When those picked to disseminate opinion within your ranks start sacrificing truth to assertion and moralistic preening, you're in trouble.
The Guardian’s political editor Rafael Behr, while not referring directly to Cooper’s speech, wishes that Labour “would deal with resentment of immigration through policies that address the pressure on wages and services that new arrivals are said to exert, not by pretending the border can be sealed”.
This seems to be what Labour is basically doing, though it will be interesting to see what transpires from ‘fair movement’ rather than free movement within the EU. However, again, note the language from Behr– “are said to exert” as if it is some sort of myth that heightened demand doesn’t affect service availability. It's really quite remarkable.
Lastly here, Labour’s house news service LabourList carried a piece by Maya Goodfellow, entitled: ‘Miliband says it’s not prejudiced to talk about immigration – but that’s exactly what this immigration debate is built on’ - protesting that Labour MPs like David Blunkett and Frank Field and the leadership are “continuing to concede ground to Ukip and the Tories by accepting that immigration is a problem at all”.
This reminds me of a passage from George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language:
“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
Saying that our immigration debate is ‘built on’ prejudice is both meaningless and wrong, as if there is a root cause of a debate like this, and it’s not the experiences of the real people that the likes of Frank Field and David Blunkett meet in their work as MPs but rather from their own prejudice – that they are basically racist. Either Maya Goodfellow is not honest enough to come out and say that or she doesn’t really believe it, in which case she shouldn’t be saying it indirectly.
All these articles and their opinions are significant not just in themselves but for what they say about where hegemony of opinion lies on the left. These are the house opinions of left publications, and they are all the same. I haven’t quoted from the Huffington Post UK, but its political director Mehdi Hasan put out a stream of vituperative tweets about Labour and immigration following Cooper’s speech.
Goodfellow’s article was also strikingly aggressive towards Ed Miliband for his own (very benign) rhetoric, in a way that you would be unlikely to see on any other subject except immigration.
Hegemony doesn’t give up its supremacy without a fight. For this hegemony though, it is notable that that the more its members fight and make a noise, they more they succeed in convincing and mobilising each other, but hardly anyone else.