It’s easy to criticise others for “obsessing about diversity” when you’re an affluent, white, heterosexual, male, cisgender Member of Parliament, both of whose parents are in the House of Lords, and who’s married to a former Prime Minister of another country.
Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Aberavon, may not be as blinkered, as spiteful, as murderous a racist as any given Britain First or EDL activist, but – as I wrote in my last post on this blog, about the disgraced former Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith – it doesn’t matter. When you’re a public figure, and you’re prepared to play politics with ethnic minorities’ lives, you’re a racist, and your racism is significantly more consequential than some meathead nobody who yells at the odd mosque and keeps a few Nazi books on their shelf but essentially has no impact on anybody other than the unfortunate few to encounter them in their daily lives. When a credible, left-of-centre politician like Kinnock comes out and attacks the left’s supposed diversity “obsession”, the apparent unwillingness of minorities to “assimilate” with the British people, and the deprioritisation of the latter group he sees in modern society, he does more to normalise the place of far-right ideas in polite discourse than a ranting fascist like Tommy Robinson ever could. They might still see Labour as the enemy, but when Labour politicians attempt to embrace them, the meathead nobody with Nazi books on their shelf is validated.
Kinnock – allegedly the son of former Labour leader and two-time election loser Neil, but himself two-time winner of the coveted ThinkCease Parliamentary Putin Lookalike of the Year Award – told the London School of Economics that the left “have played the game of identity politics and identified groups, whether it is by ethnicity or sexuality or whatever you might want to call it, rather than say, ‘we stand up for everyone in this country and that includes you, the white working class’.” It is the idea, a common recurrence in the month since Donald Trump’s shock electoral victory among the affluent, white, male sections of the commentariat, that by affording undue attention to the struggles of minorities, the left have abandoned collective solutions; policies that work for “everyone” – that they have abandoned “commonality” in favour of highlighting “what differentiates us from each other.”
But by specifically mentioning the so-called “white working class”, Kinnock has himself indulged in identity politics, albeit a grotesque distortion thereof: one that eschews the identitarian distinction between the privileged and the underprivileged and favours the majority by virtue of their sheer strength in numbers. There is a reason that progressive people do not talk about the white racial identity so much: because in a society that still, to all intents and purposes, is white supremacist in function, white skin does not provide cause for discrimination. Whilst our economic system finds many ways to oppress white citizens, it has to circumvent the issue of their race in order to do so. As a study by the Runnymede Trust states, it simply cannot be argued that being white makes you more susceptible to economic exploitation:
The fact of the matter is that all BME groups are more likely to be poor than white British people and are more likely to live in poor and disadvantaged areas. It is nonsensical to compare ethnic groups across economic strata. Because of racism and discrimination, being black is a disadvantage whatever your social status; being white is not. Feigning white working class disadvantage as an ethnic disadvantage rather than as class disadvantage is exactly what rhetorically places this group in direct competition with minority ethnic groups. As such, it does little to address the real and legitimate grievances poor white people in Britain have.
Stephen Kinnock calls for more solidarity, centring around shared class interests, but needlessly punctures this demand with his indulgence of the politics of white identity. According to the Huffington Post,
He said (Hillary) Clinton’s mistake was to “shout out” to the Latino community, the African American community and others during her campaign but not others. “If you are going to do it you better make sure you list off every group in your population. If you don’t – the results will be very clear at the ballot box.”
By “others”, you have to presume Kinnock means “white people.” But had Clinton set aside time and energy to single out white Americans for praise – which, in American politics, tends to focus on just how innate the recipients of politicians’ adulation are to the USA’s national character – she would have only further inflamed her nation’s burgeoning sense of white pride; an insidious social development that works explicitly to the detriment of ethnic minorities’ existences, allowing the man who defeated her to appoint white nationalists like Steve Bannon, the fascist former editor of fascist news website Breitbart, to senior positions in the White House, while soft-treading liberal publications describe him as “controversial” and a “firebrand“. But it’s all very well to blast Kinnock’s unsophisticated analysis of American politics – unfortunately, he also comes across as equally ignorant of the direction in which his own country is headed.
When Kinnock told a meeting organised by the Blairite ginger group Progress that “we must move away from multiculturalism and towards assimilation. We must stand for one group: the British people,” he surely could not have failed to grasp that his words go further than virtually any public statement by a Labour politician in decades. Politicians have a grave responsibility to phrase their rhetoric with a degree of sensitivity. In the wake of his repeated calls for stronger controls on immigration and his attack on the left’s “obsession” with diversity, it’s not unreasonable that many interpreted Kinnock’s words as inflammatory, nationalistic, and ethnocentric. That Kinnock felt it necessary to clarify his comments with an explanatory piece for Labour List, and send it to person after person who criticised him on Twitter with some variation of “I’ve written some further thoughts on these vitally important issues”, suggests that maybe he should have given some more consideration to his irresponsible rhetorical choices in advance, given the issues at hand were so vitally important.
According to John Rentoul, Chief Political Commentator at the Independent and Blairism’s own private Nosferatu, “it’s not anti-immigration to want to reduce immigration“, just as Times journalist and ephemeral Labour member Oliver Kamm would insist there’s nothing “pro-war” about his desire to see bombs raining down on Middle Easterners’ heads on a near-constant basis. But Rentoul isn’t the only person on the centre-left who aspires to see anti-immigration views normalised to the point that it’s not seen as anti-immigration to oppose immigration. Director of Progress Richard Angell – in response to the pro-migrant sentiments expressed by Jeremy Corbyn in his speech at Labour’s 2016 conference – coined the frankly magnificent adage “I bow to no one in my liberal pro-immigration views, but…“, proceeding to bow to just about everyone with views less liberal and pro-immigration than himself as he called for stronger controls. The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee responded to Trump’s victory with a piece claiming “politicians must not pander to” the racist “whitelash” it evidenced. Yet less than two months earlier, in her review of Corbyn’s conference speech, she had demanded he do exactly that, calling his stance on immigration “honourable”, and proclaiming his insistence that “it isn’t migrants that drive down wages, it’s exploitative employers” to be “quite right”. Despite categorically stating that his stance was “right”, Toynbee demanded that Corbyn lie and tell the thick, gullible, prejudiced voters the opposite. How she thinks this wouldn’t contribute to the spread of the so-called “whitelash” (a typically ghastly portmanteau in the year of “Brexit”) is beyond me.
The same goes for her column lamenting the parlous state of the UK’s Border Force, or her Observer colleague, Nick Cohen, who blasted the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan for the Leave campaign’s “cynical decision to ramp up immigration fears” whilst also writing articles with titles like “To help real refugees, be firm with economic migrants.” As the old meme goes, get you a man who can do both.
It should come as no surprise that many centrists like Cohen can’t wrap their heads around why younger, left-leaning people might want to “no-platform” somebody with, for example, openly racist views, when politicians and commentators alike seem to have absolutely no concept of the magnitude of their platform. Be it on the issue of Labour’s economic record, of Corbyn’s leadership or, as is most relevant to this piece, issues of immigration and race, they act utterly subservient – positively dripping with deference – to what is notionally public opinion, even as they use their ample platforms to manufacture it. The politicians and journalists who occupy the political sphere are not passive observers, but active participants. Every writer who chooses to churn out a hot take umming and ahhing about the public’s negative attitudes to immigration (as seen in the latest opinion polls they’ve got their grubby, capitulation-stained hands on) is feeding into a discourse with disastrous consequences for many people less privileged than themselves, and neglecting a unique opportunity to put forth an alternative viewpoint.
That most MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party cannot be trusted to defend migrants is most starkly illustrated by the fact that the party has no Shadow Immigration Minister, and this is not simply down to a personnel shortage in a parliamentary party overwhelmingly hostile to its leadership. Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott – possibly the most pro-migrant MP in parliament – has taken total control of the brief, and this is something those of us lacking in the ubiquitous “legitimate concerns” should be heartened by. An experienced politician, confident media performer, and prolific writer in defence of her chosen causes – and the victim of an incredible, ceaseless torrent of racist abuse herself – Abbott has so far done an excellent job holding the line against encroaching xenophobia, especially with the abject lack of respect she receives for it from her own parliamentary party. One backbencher from the right of the party, Caroline Flint, told Radio 4 that “Labour needs immigration policies the public can quote back at you. And that shouldn’t be not having one.” Presumably, Flint’s idea of a more quotable immigration policy than “a drive to highlight the benefits of immigration” would be something to the effect of “End free movement now! Send ’em back!”
But while a privileged white person like Flint has the luxury of dispensing anti-migrant sentiments she will never be materially affected by, Abbott – the daughter of Jamaican immigrants – has said that “what some of my colleagues don’t seem to bear in mind is that there are people out there who are genuinely frightened by the turn this debate has taken.” She explained to The i how the post-referendum rise in hate crime was closer to home for her than it might be for others;
People in my family, where I live in Hackney, have been shouted at in the street and told: ‘What are you still doing here? We voted for Brexit.’ Brexit has become a euphemism for anti-immigrant feeling.
In the activist Seema Chandwani’s articulate response to Kinnock’s comments, she elaborates further:
The threat of neo-Nazi, far right and fascist attacks is something most Black and Asian people have to think about every-day, it’s a natural instinct built in our sub-conscious so deep, it has become a normal part of our psychology. When I go to a new place, I recognise straight away if I am the only non-White person. When I walk into a pub and see the England or Union Jack flag, I have search the room for any other person of colour to confirm I am in a safe space – once seeing a picture of Bob Marley on the wall gave me a sense of security. I’ve never been racially attacked – but I am aware I could be, because it happens daily to people of my skin tone.
What you do, as an MP when you position immigrants as the cause of the socioeconomic problems many people are facing is you channel their hate and anger toward people like me, they go into a fight mode for survival as you have confirmed or reaffirmed immigrants are the threat. You legitimise and add credibility to the myth that immigrants are to blame, and you mainstream such views making them acceptable views to hold in our society.
And “position(ing) immigrants as the cause of the socioeconomic problems many people are facing” is precisely what Abbott’s predecessor as Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, has spent the last few days doing. Burnham, who is running as Labour’s candidate for the Greater Manchester Mayoralty, told Sky News today that “the public are right to raise concerns” about the EU free movement that he claims “has actually caused quite difficult challenges in some parts of Greater Manchester”, namely “downward pressure on wages, but also pressure on primary schools (and) GP services.” But countless studies have declared otherwise, and attributing these problems to immigration lets the Tories decidedly off the hook, plus provides a convenient shortcut for Labour politicians past advocating any kind of genuinely left-wing economic policy. Four days earlier in parliament, Burnham even went so far as to claim that the current rate of immigration had “undermined the safety of our streets” – a preposterous suggestion expertly rebuked by Adam Bienkov, a journalist from the centre of the Labour Party, who wrote that it;
…is factually wrong.
There is no evidence of a link between increased immigration and deteriorating safety on the streets. Violent crime has been falling in the UK for decades and a comprehensive study by the London School of Economics found no link between violent crime and high levels of immigration.
It is true that there has been a spike in hate crime since the EU referendum. But to blame that spike on the people who have defended immigrants, rather than on the thugs who have assaulted them, simply beggars belief.
Burnham isn’t the only Labour MP to claim that further immigration could lead to an outpouring of violence on our streets. In September, Rachel Reeves told a fringe meeting at the Labour conference that,
The other reason we have got to get this right is because there are bubbling tensions in this country that I just think could explode. You had those riots in 2011, the riots didn’t happen in Leeds and in my constituency, but if riots started again in Leeds and parts of my constituency – it’s like a tinder box.
Reeves explicitly advocated an end to free movement and cited “three racist attacks” in her constituency, one of which had put a Polish man in hospital. As with Burnham’s comments, her intent was clear: to suggest that the onus to prevent racist violence was not on those who perpetrate it, but on its victims for having the temerity to come here in the first place, and on liberals and leftists for letting them do so. Her comments instantly drew comparison to similarly vile ones made by Nigel Farage during the EU referendum, and to the crypto-fascist Tory politician Enoch Powell’s infamous 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Powell’s speech was an obscene racist diatribe about “the black man having the whip hand over the white man” and shoving faeces through white people’s letterboxes, but – despicably inflammatory language as it was – when he spoke of “the River Tiber foaming with blood” it was a typically Powellian classical allusion to the Aeneid, by the ancient Roman poet Virgil; not in itself a literal prediction of violent bloodshed, but a metaphor for the dramatic decline of society itself. In this regard and many others, Powell’s speech was certainly racist enough to wholly merit the explicit comparison to the Nazis that Tony Benn made in parliament in the following days, but Reeves actually went further when it came to identifying immigration as a catalyst for violence on the streets.
It’s not just those on the left who have deep worries about Labour’s direction of travel on the immigration issue. The veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke today criticised Burnham for “going on about free movement of labour and sounding a bit like a paler version of Nigel Farage.” Clearly the debate has fostered some divisions on Labour’s right wing. Sycophantic Blairite gargoyle John McTernan – whose views are famously indistinguishable from those of the most hardline Tory on just about any issue you care to name – had nothing but contempt for Kinnock’s intervention. After Carwyn Jones, the Welsh First Minister, publicly criticised Labour’s stance on free movement – launching a typical attack on pro-migration views as “cosmopolitan” and “London-centric”, with the potential “to drive voters into the hands of UKIP” – the none-more-New Labour Lord Livermore “told the Guardian he had become increasingly concerned about what he called the “extreme” pronouncements from some of his colleagues.”
“It just feels like the direction of travel at the moment is all in one direction, and Labour is lurching too far towards an anti-immigration position that hasn’t necessarily been thought through.”
He said halting the free movement of people from the rest of the EU would not solve the economic and social problems – pressure on public services, low wages, unaffordable housing – that led to the referendum result. “You could end free movement and those problems would still be there.”
“The truth is, if Labour becomes an anti-immigration party it will be the far right that benefits, not us.”
As much as I hate to concede that somebody affiliated with Progress is right about anything, Livermore is spot on. Labour can never hope to win an election on an anti-immigration platform, and Ed Miliband’s futile attempts, best symbolised by his sanctioning the printing of the phrase “controls on immigration” on a mug and an eight-foot stone tablet, go to illustrate this. The first reason is that the parties to their right are simply so much better at racism than Labour, and if voters embittered by the changing ethnic composition of their neighbourhoods want to take that anger out at the ballot box, they’ll go for the Conservatives, UKIP, or someone even more overtly fascist, rather than a party that most think will, at best, attempt to compromise on the issue with some weak half-measures.
The second reason is that Labour need to preserve their core base, which includes those voters, often in urban areas but both middle and working class, who see no problem with immigration and a diverse society. And – with his leadership already attacked from all sides – Jeremy Corbyn specifically depends on the pro-immigration left for his most enthusiastic support. As Abbott put it to the i, “if you were a Corbynista you would feel very let down if we said anything” other than a full-throated defence of migration. When every leftist on the internet was writing a protracted Medium essay on why Corbyn needed to stay at the party’s helm during Labour’s 2016 leadership contest, writer after writer cited his unequivocal support for immigration – and the bulwark against an ever-stronger far-right that he was consequently – as often the number one reason. A trace of compromise has seeped into the rhetoric of Corbyn, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, and Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis, a left-winger who is tipped by many (but mainly Owen Jones) as a future leader of the party: a suggestion that Labour policies would not explicitly aim to bring down migrant numbers, but that their economic reforms would do so anyway, and that this would be desirable. (Lewis, in fairness, did put clear water between himself and Kinnock after the Putin progeny’s ill-advised “assimilation” comments.)
Corbyn would do well to remember that one of the many sharp right-turns among the Labour establishment that turned many members in his favour back in the summer of 2015 was the anti-migrant rhetoric of the Blairite candidate Liz Kendall, who complained of “people trying to get into this country illegally, scrambling onto lorries from Calais” – a particularly heartless perspective on the refugee crisis that she compounded by advocating a “strict points-based system like they have in Australia” for people outside Europe and demanding those entering the country “respect the community (they) live in and our culture.” Needless to say, when the body of three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, this fiery race-baiting rhetoric failed to catch on with the Labour selectorate.
Now that Corbyn’s leadership has forced even the most reactionary of Labour MPs to adopt at least a thin veneer of leftism, it’s hard to imagine any of them going near rhetoric of that particular bent: refugees are The Good Immigrants, and it’s OK to defend them – Yvette Cooper said so. But if somebody moves to our country to escape unbearable economic conditions, it is also the responsibility of the left – who demand a fairer economic agenda – to welcome them. Telling voters, as Carwyn Jones has done, that it’s understandable and rational to vote against their own economic interests for a privatisation-happy, Thatcherite party like UKIP, is not going to win anybody back to Labour: it’s only going to validate and solidify the idea some hold that the immigration “problem” has got to the point where nothing else matters as much and, fuck it, decent housing and well-paying jobs and a publicly, strongly funded National Health Service can be put on hold while we painstakingly ensure there aren’t any pesky foreigners mooching off the same shitty, underfunded public services as the rest of us.
The Labour right have proven elsewhere a propensity to take a cackhanded approach to racial politics – be it Ruth Smeeth’s dog-whistle description of “extremist” activists from the National Union of Students, who just happened to be people of colour and of Islamic faith, Owen Smith’s support for the discriminatory Prevent strategy, or the way Jess Phillips genuinely seems to have made a career out of telling Abbott to “fuck off” at a PLP meeting, before toppling Dawn Butler – the first BAME woman to hold ministerial office in Britain – as Chair of the Women’s PLP. Corbyn’s leadership must resist the advances of his own party’s xenophobic right, or risk alienating his core support base, endangering the lives of ethnic minorities, and damaging our country’s economic prosperity. Whilst her racist, misogynistic detractors to her right will continue to sneer, Abbott appears to be one of the few public figures of any influence on the left who seems aware of the enormous platform she has to disseminate pro-migrant ideas, and she is admirably determined to use it. As she wrote in a piece for the Guardian, entitled ‘Labour has never had an open-door immigration policy,” there are consequences both economic and deeply human to stringent controls on immigration.
Over time immigration rules have only become tighter. For all those Commonwealth citizens who were initially told they were entitled to come here but have since been blocked, or for those separated from loved ones by arcane rules separating families, the notion that Britain has an open-door immigration policy will produce hollow laughter. In the 14 years before 2010 there were 91 policy or legislative changes on some aspect of immigration. Virtually all of them tightened immigration access. The coalition and the current Tory government were not to be outdone. In a little over six years, there have been a further 209 such changes.
This legislative frenzy has always been cast in terms of controlling numbers or, even more fruitlessly, in the case of Theresa May, reducing numbers. Immigration is growing in the UK, just as it is in France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and a host of European and other countries, because migrants are needed and because people want to migrate. At times we have introduced controls that undermine our own prosperity. Recently, universities, farmers and the NHS have all reported difficulties in recruiting from Europe.
In the past, when Gordon Brown spoke of “British jobs for British workers” and Tony Blair extolled the virtues of low numbers of asylum seekers, they presumably felt they could afford to give concessions to the far-right: polls showed positive attitudes to immigration at an all time high, and it’s unlikely Blair or Brown – especially the former, who to this day continually pops up to scratch his head and complain that he’s absolutely baffled by the myriad strange turns modern politics has taken since he left office to embark upon his lucrative diplomatic work as Middle East irony envoy – could have predicted that the far-right would win the American presidency, come a close second in Austria’s contested election, or help take us out of the European Union at the cost of a pro-immigration Labour MP’s life. Unfortunately, their compromises only accelerated a reactionary drift in politics, and the proteges of Blair and Brown appear to have learned nothing from this. The Labour left have had to face up to the fact that a vocal minority within their ranks hold antisemitic views. It’s time the Labour right faced up to their racism problem.