The day after the murder of the MP Jo Cox, her husband Brendan circulated a paper he had written a few weeks previously on politicians’ failure to tackle the subject of immigration. There he argued that efforts “to neuter [far right populists] by taking their ground and aping their rhetoric” had backfired. “Far from closing down the debates, these steps legitimise [their] views, reinforce their frames and pull the debate further to the extremes”. In the hours after his wife’s death, Cox released a statement in which he urged us to “unite to fight against the hatred that killed her”. Let’s start thinking constructively about how we can do that.
The false frame
The overall framing of the national debate on immigration is that it’s a problem, and that the more immigrants, the bigger the problem and the bigger the burden on society. It’s a frame, rather than just a contestable opinion, because it’s not only the political right – or, in the current EU debate, the Leave camp – that say it. Their opponents accept it as well.
Back in 2004, the current deputy leader of the Labour party, Tom Watson, was responsible for an election leaflet that said “Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers”. Former Labour home secretary David Blunkett has said repeatedly that Britain is being “swamped” by foreigners, recently predicting “an explosion” if Roma migrants don’t “change [their] culture”. The consistent stance on immigration from most of the right and centre of the parliamentary Labour party is that it can control ‘the numbers’ better than the Conservatives. Watson has since expressed regret for his past actions, though last week he contradicted his party leadership by calling for tighter restrictions on immigration – again, reinforcing the frames of the anti-immigrant right.
So the first step toward a post-xenophobic politics has to be pointing out, again and again, that the ‘burdensome immigration’ frame is a false one. Recent research produced by the London School of Economics (confirming earlier findings from University College London) shows that recent EU migrants “pay more in taxes than they use in public services”, have not pushed down wages or reduced job opportunities, and provide a boost to the economy through their purchasing of goods and services.
Therefore, every statement and argument made by a politician or commentator that is based on the false frame needs to be met with an immediate and direct correction. Not only is the current debate actively dangerous, but its entire basis is factually wrong. We need to say so (while also pointing out that judging human beings as economic units is slightly grotesque to begin with).
But this is insufficient by itself. The second stage has to be showing that concerns about jobs, housing and public services can all be addressed without irrelevant diversions into immigration policy. People deserve a tangible sense that their problems can be solved, not just to be told that they’ve been misled about the causes.
The real ‘legitimate concerns’
On jobs, it is our bosses, not immigrants, who cut our pay or lay us off. So government should both legislate for and properly enforce a genuine living wage, and encourage stronger trade unions to champion people in their work place and protect them from their employers. More fundamentally, the failed Thatcher-Blair-Cameron economic model needs to be replaced with one that produces good, skilled, secure jobs, not poor, unskilled, insecure ones. This is no small task, requiring a highly developed political and policy strategy.
On affordable housing, a massive building programme is obviously needed, as well as compulsory purchase orders for unoccupied properties, and a crackdown on parasitical landlords. Funding public services adequately to meet the demands of a growing and ageing population can, like the housebuilding programme, be paid for through the added tax revenue and economic activity produced by immigration, as well as more progressive taxation for higher earners, and dramatic action on tax havens, evasion and avoidance.
The real culprits, plainly, are not immigrants but tax dodgers, unscrupulous landlords, and exploitative bosses. And this is the new frame: an economy rigged in favour of a privileged elite. Of course, those in the old New Labour tradition will complain that this is ‘anti-business’ and ‘anti-aspiration’. Perhaps. But this framing, unlike theirs, does at least have the redeeming feature of being both factually accurate and offering concrete solutions.
Another right-populist frame requiring challenge is the caricatured dichotomy (again, parroted by the centre-left) of ordinary people with their ‘legitimate concerns’ versus a pro-migration, metropolitan elite. In reality, it is elite residents of Westminster and Fleet Street, above all, who have promoted or appeased anti-immigrant politics, abrogating their responsibilities as custodians of the national conversation, colluding in the misleading of the public, and spreading fear, hatred and division in doing so. And it is their friends, proprietors and donors in the economic elite who have been the prime beneficiaries, escaping the blame for economic exploitation and inequality in the long aftermath of the financial crash. Ordinary people, in the absence of any serious policies to materially improve their living standards, have not been well served by this misdirection.
And ordinary people, in any case, are a varied group. In London, where migration is at its highest, where deep poverty persists, and where the housing crisis is perhaps at its most acute, UKIP finds itself repeatedly and resoundingly rejected at the ballot box. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency is both one of the most diverse and one of the most deprived in the capital has not stopped his less thoughtful opponents branding him as an out of touch metropolitan. Perhaps they should instead ask him how he has managed to thrive as a local MP in this environment.
Finally, we will need to confront the fact that antipathy towards immigrants is not always a proxy for legitimate economic concerns. Geographically, anti-immigrant sentiment is at its highest where the number of immigrants is lowest, suggesting that prejudice and ignorance, rather than direct experience, is a significant part of the picture. This also indicates that attitudes change when immigrants become real people – friends, colleagues, family members – rather than a dehumanised, inundating mass.
The disproportionately white Anglo-Saxon residents of Westminster and Fleet Street may find this hard to believe, but Britain has a rich and well established tradition of racism and xenophobia. The idea that these feelings might be widespread, rather than marginal, is only discounted by those who have never been subjected to them first hand. Tackling this issue will be harder, and deserves to be the subject of a separate article. But a first step would be acknowledging its existence, and a second might be for public figures to direct their righteous indignation toward the fact of prejudice, rather than the accusation of it.
Out of the darkness, or further in?
When a narrative takes hold wherein the nation is threatened by a designated out-group, some form of darkness tends to follow close behind. We don’t exactly need more historical proof of this. Reflexive blaming of the out-group, painting them as the root cause of all social ills is a familiar part of the script, as is their stigmatisation as a security, sexual or public health threat. Thus dehumanised, the out-group becomes uniquely vulnerable to mistreatment, including violence, as do any of those deemed “traitors” for siding with them (in our case, the imaginary pro-migrant, metropolitan elite).
All of this was perfectly apparent before the death – in the midst of an overtly xenophobic political campaign – of the pro-migrant MP Jo Cox, whose accused murderer is reportedly a committed racist neo-Nazi who allegedly shouted far right slogans as he stabbed and shot her. It was apparent in the brutal mistreatment of the detainees in Yarl’s Wood, and in the repeated drownings claiming hundreds of lives at the gates of Fortress Europe. It was apparent in the rising tide of racist attacks on public transport, and the increasing number of people in Britain prepared to admit to being racist (not the same as the number who are actually racist) in recent years.
The choice before us then is clear enough. We can continue on the present course, knowing both from historical and immediate experience where this is leading. Or we can break the frame, change the narrative, and push back hard against anyone still following the script that brought us here. Britain has begun to feel like a nightmare version of itself in recent weeks. But the current trajectory isn’t inevitable. The lies can be called out, the real issues can be tackled, the hate can be beaten. Again, it’s a choice, [not just for this Thursday], but for a sustained fightback in the months and years ahead.