When Labour lost it on immigration: 24th October 2006
It can be argued that Latin became French in 842, when the Oaths of Strasbourg were written in Latin, Old High German and a form of Old Gallo-Romance, which would in turn become Old French.
Of course people under Charlemagne’s rule had already moved on from Vulgar Latin, and would have been unintelligible to a Latin speaker of the 4th century AD, but what was important about the Oaths is that they gave institutional authority, for a specific political purpose, to the new language, and distinguished it officially from Latin.
French never looked back.
While perhaps not quite as dramatic, the then Home Office Minister did much the same thing on 24 October 2006, when he made a statement to the House concerning new rules to be put in place in respect of Bulgarian and Romanian nationals:
Over the last few months, I have set out ambitious plans to ensure that our immigration system is both effective and fair, including plans to ensure immigration rules are advised by an independent Migration Advisory Committee; plans to double spending on enforcement; and plans to introduce ID cards for foreign nationals.
Here, in one short paragraph, we see encapsulated the changed government attitude; ‘migration’ has become ‘immigration’, and enforcement is now the order of the day.
And as with French, a seeming ’point of no return’ was reached, as anti-immigration language was given governmental authority. This time around it wasn’t that noticeable, indeed no-one at the time really noticed it, but it legitimized much worse to come.
It did so not just because of the language chosen to set out his the new set of immigration rules by John Reid, but because, behind the scenes and in spite of his reference to the Migration Advisory Committee, he had chosen to ignore their advice, which was that the Bulgaria/Romania accession (A2) in 2007 should be treated in the same way as the A8 accession on 2003. As Dr Alex Balch, an expert in UK migration policy in the 2000s, says in a paper drawn from his PhD:
The large inflows related to the 2002 decision on A8 nationals have clearly had a significant political and institutional impact. The effect of institutional, political and organisational pressure can be seen in the decision to restrict access for A2 nationals before the subsequent (2007) enlargement. In contrast to 2002 this decision was taken against expert opinion. Here the managed migration frame was displaced by a political imperative to respond to public concerns over immigration levels (despite the likelihood that A2 migration would be on a different scale to A8 migration).
From late 2006 onwards then, the path was set for the Labour government to become ever more draconian in its language about immigration, and its eventual attempts to outflank the Conservatives from the right on immigration. As Andy Newman has set out well, beyond this important first step:
[The] Labour government in a sense created the perfect storm. On the one hand engaging in dog-whistle politics, and talking tough over the points system, and locking up children in detention centres; while simultaneously presiding over a laissez faire abdication of responsibility towards resolving the social problems caused by the reality of mass immigration from Eastern Europe.
In so doing, Labour was host by its 1996 petard. By conceding migration as almost wholly a problem rather than a driver of economic growth, it put itself in a position whereby it could never win the argument. Any immigration quickly became too much immigration, and the accusation during Neathergate that the government had been surreptitiously planning dastardly ‘multi-culturalism’ was rebutted by Jack Straw not by pointing out that migration had been really good for the UK economy, but that Labour was being really tough on immigration and that he’d call for an extra ‘probe’ into the matter – something that was then immediately taken by the rabid rightwing press to be part of the whole plot.
Labour’s self-imposed problem is neatly summed up by Don Flynn of the Migrant Rights Network:
Rather than there being a lack of targeted publicity about the government’s immigration policies, Labour’s problem lay in the messages themselves. The government’s big claims that immigration was now ‘under control’ were inherently vulnerable to being demolished by commentators. Every inflated statement of policy success made by the government was poured over by opponents looking for the opportunity to contradict it. Day after day, the party made itself a hostage to fortune on immigration.
In short, Labour bottled it on migration, and has paid for it ever since October 1996.
Why go back over this short (in both senses) history of Labour’s policy swerve towards a self-defeating immigration stance?
Well, it’s important, if Labour and its prospective leaders are to get it right on immigration that we realize that the 1997 and 2001 administrations actually didn’t do too badly on it in the first place.
Yes, the policy stance may have been too ‘technocratic’ and reflective of New Labour’s neo-liberal norms, and this may have led to greater distrust down the line about motives when the policy was changed, but in narrower there is not too much to fault with this statement by then Home Office Minister Barbara Roche, in September 2000
In the past we have thought purely about immigration control … Now we need to think about immigration management … The evidence shows that economically driven migration can bring substantial overall benefits for both growth and the economy.
This is important because there is a myth developing quickly about New Labour, set out by Daniel Trilling of the New Statesman in an otherwise well informed article:
In fact, over 13 years in power, New Labour’s rhetoric on immigration – combined with the virulent xenophobia of the tabloid press – has gifted the BNP with fertile ground on which to cultivate support.
Quite simply, this is wrong about New Labour, as I have tried to show above.
More importantly, perhaps, it is important to recognize that this explosion of hysteria about immigration and its effects on Britain is actually quite recent, and is therefore all the more reversible.
We’re now so used to Daily Mail headlines like this, which skate happily over the headline-contradicting facts within the story itself, that we think such loathsome attitudues have been at large longer than they actually have.
But it is, for example, only six years (to the day, as it happens) that the NUJ Chapel at the Daily Express – yes, the Daily Express – passed the following motion over a ‘1.6 million gypsies to flood in’ headline in the paper:
This chapel is concerned that Express journalists are coming under pressure to write anti-gypsy articles. We call for a letter to be sent to the Press Complaints Commission reminding it of the need to protect journalists who are unwilling to write racist articles which are contrary to the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct.
The Daily Express journalists had not had their Oaths of Strasbourg moment; they were aware that a new language was amongst them, but they preferred to cling to the old language of decency.
It is only a 16 months since a Conservative councillor in Lincolnshire felt able to go on record in the following way in the local press:
Gypsies and travellers currently suffering from persecution in their countries of origin could be persuaded to flee their “squalor” and step into jobs left by Poles returning home.
In Lincolnshire they have predominantly filled jobs in agriculture.
If, because of the downturn, we start to see fewer Eastern European migrant workers from Poland and so forth, it’s my personal view we could get replacements from Romania and Bulgaria.”
He said Lincolnshire could extend a friendly hand to them saying “come to us and get a better deal”.
“The main problem of course, whether we like it or not, is that gypsies and travellers are extremely unpopular people to have in the county,” he added.
The councillor, for suggesting that economic benefit might outweigh local xenophobia under his administration’s watch, was then subjected to a torrent of abuse, but this is perhaps less noteworthy than the fact that he felt bound to speak as he did in the first place, for that showed a vestige of the old ‘pre-Reid’ language of migration held true (however faulty the argument in the wider political sense).
In my next post on immigration, I’ll be trying to answer in ‘nuts and bolts’ detail Sunny’s questions on how the Left deals with the now prevalent anti-immigrant narrative:
The public are not easily persuaded by facts. There’s no way of ‘educating them’. The right-wing media exists and it won’t stop printing false stories. And there are lots of traditional Labour supporters who have concerns about immigration…. How do you deal with people’s concerns without sounding like the English Defence League, the BNP or Andy Burnham? How does that narrative offer solutions and hope without encouraging people to be bigots or making them fearful of immigrants?
What’s the narrative? What do you say on the door-step? Thoughts?
This, though, is my starting point. Labour lost it on immigration, and there’s no excuse for that. But it did so more recently than it’s now being assumed, and the wave of ‘popular xenophobia’ that has swept over us in the last three years may be gone before we think, if the Labour movement-in-opposition, assisted or not by its new Labour PLP leadership, can get its tactics right over the next year or so.
‘Traditional Labour supporters’ don’t want to be anti-immigrant, and we can give them reasons why they don’t ‘need’ to be.
In 845, three years after the Oaths of Strasbourg were signed, Charlemagne could have torn up the proto-French version as a symbolic gesture of defiance. French, without institutional authority, might have developed very differently. Labour needs to start by denouncing its 1996 turn. Come on the Milbros, we’re waiting.
Till next time….