Home > General Politics, Labour Party News > Beyond evidence: a road map for Labour’s immigration policy

Beyond evidence: a road map for Labour’s immigration policy


Drawing on insights from Hasina, a woman I knew in Bangladesh, Sally Copley (Labour PPC for Oxford West), cognitive linguist  George Lakoff, historian Tim Stanley, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and Peter Griffin from Family Guy, I try to map a route past Labour’s current immigration impasse and towards a ‘reframing’ of how Labour might present a new immigration narrative.

This route will largely depend, I suggest, on the capacity of the labour movement for subversion against the leadership, and the willingness of the leadership to tolerate such subversion.  As such, the development of an authentic left-wing framing of the immigration debate might act as a model for (anti-hegemomic) framing of other political ‘debates’ which are currently being lost to the right.

From a Chittagong slum to the House of Commons


Years ago, I was sitting in the clinic in a Chittagong slum, chatting after work hours with a mix of local residents and staff (there we are, that’s me in blue).

Most were Muslims, but a couple of the staff were Hindus.  We got to talking about Muslim-Hindi relations, and one contribution from a local mother, Hasina (pictured below) – her child was staying with us in the feeding centre and she was well known in the area as an organiser and agitator – has stuck with me:

We need the Hindus.  They are cleverer than us.  Sometimes we don’t like them, but we need them.

I was reminded of this last week when, down in London, I bobbed down to Westminster for Progress’s Q&A on Labour’s immigration stance in the context of winning the next general election.

At the top table were:

1) Jonathan Portes from NIESR, who gave us facts about immigration being good for the UK, before retreating (several times) behind his “I’m an economist, not a politician” banner. Jonathan was always going to do this, so it does make you wonder why he was a speaker at meeting on how to get the politics of immigration right.

2) Diane Abbott MP, who went over, in some places word for word, the Progress article magazine I’d read in the ten minutes I was waiting for it all to start.  Her message is simple: stop apologising for Labour’s immigration policy as it’ll make everyone thing the Tories/UKIP are right, and deal with the economic issues which feed popular anti-immigration sentiment instead.  She also said that people who claim that anti-immigration stances aren’t mostly about race are talking crap.

3) David Hanson, Shadow Immigration Minister, talked crap about how we should recognize that people around the country were “in shock” at the changes in their community, such as a traditional butcher’s now being a Polish foodstuff shop, and that the best way to deal with all this is to deal with the economic issues which feed popular anti-immigration sentiment.  David’s list of issues was a bit different from Diane Abbott’s, notably leaving out trade union freedom.  He also said that people who claim that anti-immigration stances are actually about race are talking crap.

4) Zoe Tyndall  from polling firm Britain Thinks, who – amongst the general platitudes –  told us one interesting thing: that the one thing her focus groups associate with Labour’s immigration policy is Gordon Brown’s calling Irene Duffy a bigot – the implication being that the real issue for voters is not so much whether immigration is a good or a bad thing, more that they dislike the idea of an elite telling them that there is correct line to take on it.

5) Someone else from a polling firm or think-tank who said nothing of interest and whose name I’ve forgotten.

The Q&A proceeded as you’d expect, and as many have proceeded previously.  The speakers entrenched themselves in their positions, and the central question of how a mainstream political party might facilitate a shift in public opinion on immigration, in order to get to a more sensible political and economic position of the type set out by Jonathan Portes, while still understanding, respecting and being seen to respect the right of the public to have an opinion which for the moment at least appears diametrically opposed to that sensible political and economic position (and without, therefore further entrenching a public view that a pro-immigration stance is only held by a metropolitan elite who don’t have to suffer the assumed/imagined* cultural and economic downsides of immigration).

The best attempt to address this central question came from Sally Copley, the Labour PPC for Oxford West & Abingdon, who asked – referencing her campaigning job with Oxfam GB – why we are unable to develop a pro-immigration narrative/story which can turn the tide of anti-immigration sentiment. What the right were very good at, she went on, was presenting/comstructing a “villain of the piece” around to which to establish a story of good and evil. why she asked, was the left not as good at it?  This was, as I’ll go on to set out, was more insightful than I initially credited it as being.

Diane Abbott’s half-attempt to answer this was slightly bizarre, and reflected a failure even to grasp what the question was about; she claimed, as far as I could tell, that the only way forward was us to tell a story that we thought was true, thus spectacularly both missing the point and accusing us all of not believing the benefits of immigration in the first place.

But at least she had a go. The other top table ones fell back into their own securities of needing to understand that people felt under threat (Hanson), that we needed to start where people were at (pollsters) or that such stuff really wasn’t anything to do with him (Portes).

Already feeling somewhat dispirited, I attempted to back up Sally’s point – rather inarticulately, because I tried overly to facilitate dialogue by drawing on previous conversation threads (including Diane Abbott’s) – by suggesting one particular narrative in which we both believe – given the evidence – and which “starts where people are”. This is in schools – very much part of the everyday life of millions of parents and grandparents – and the very real evidence (which I’ve covered here and here) that immigration is a direct causal factor in improvements in achievement for both immigrant and native-born children.

Jonathan nodded furiously as I said this, and noted that, strangely, this was a ‘story’ which was being told by the Daily Mail, but not by Labour. Diane Abbott then provided an answer, ostensibly to my question but with no obvious substantive connection to it – essentially she repeated a bit of her Progress article – before the Chair Polly Billington, the PPC for Thurrock, weighed in with her experiences of the huge improvements in academic achievement in her area which she suggested, agreeing with my line, were being driven by immigration (from West Africa in her case) but then proceeded to chide me gently for not realizing that in fact this was very bad news, because white working class children were being excluded in some way from the rapidity of these achievements, and this meant that immigration might in fact be a bad thing.

The meeting tied up, and we all went home – none the wiser about how we actually “win” on immigration in a way which differentiates us from the right. As it stands, the Labour party seems doomed to its cowardly position – as reflected here – of the need to take voters’ concerns seriously and even internalise these concerns so as to feel in tune with popular feeling, even while knowing that these concerns are the result of years of hegemomic practice in which the party itself has been complicity, for fear of being seen to disrespect voters, while the Abbottian left snipes from the sidelines but without a positive alternative, anti-hegemonic strategy.

How not to win on immigration

So what might that alternative strategy look like?

This is where my Hasina from Chittagong comes in. Labour, I suggest, could learn a lot from her.

Hasina didn’t like Hindus much, but really wanted them in her community because they benefited her; they were the ones who knew how to mix the rehydration solution best of all, who were literate, who could make your baby well.   It was therefore in her self-interest that she should sublimate her dislike of some cultural stuff Hindus do in favour of other practical stuff that Hindus do well.

My point at the House of Commons sought to reflect Hasina’s insight.  If only, I was trying to say, immigrants could be marketed in the same way in the same way of my aid agency had, albeit inadvertently, marketed our Hindu staff from across town, then we might get somewhere – if only, for example, we could develop a ‘story’ which persuaded people that it’s in their direct self-interest to have immigrants in their school, to the extent that people start to seek out high-immigration areas for their children’s education, in the believe that this would give them the best start in life.  Then, perhaps, we might start to get somewhere – starting with grudging respect for individuals exemplars of immigration, maybe, but moving on to an acceptance that immigration as a whole is to be welcomed.

But course it’s not as easy as that, and I was wrong to suggest that it might be (not that anyone was listening).  As George Lakoff has reiterated recently in his (very good) interview with Zoe Williams, it’s not all about self-interest:

Liberals try to argue against them [convervatives] using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.

In my own argument, I had forgotten that an argument in favour of immigration based on the self interest of native-born Brits, even though this might be a narrative step on from Jonathan Portes’ dry economic facts, still relies on people being open to evidence – local evidence that immigration causes better attainment for all children in their area, in this case.

In fact, there is little evidence that such a breakthrough might be achieved, at least in the short term. After all, even respected commentator Tim Stanley, in appealing for a “serious calm conversation about immigration” failed, within that very appeal, to notice the false assumption behind his acceptance that high number of pupils with first languages other than English “has to affect [negatively] the learning of other pupils”; as I’ve set out, the opposite is true.  If an intellectual calling from a debate unframed by initial prejudice uses the frame of initial prejudice as a way of providing what he thinks is balance, what chance do the rest of us stand?

From evidence to moral foundations

Lakoff has argued for years now that the left (‘liberals’ in his US terminology) have been losing ground to the right because they have lost the framing battle.  It is a convincing argument, rooted in his in his background as a cognitive linguist researching how our core cognitive functions are driven by an understanding of the world-as-metaphor – but while he is rightly critical of methods which smiply reinforce conservative messages by repeating them, in the belief that people will then see how absurd they are, he largely fails to come up with answers about how we might carry out this reframing more successfully.  This is, in part, because he has become focused on the strict father vs nurturing father metaphor which he suggests lies at the methaphoric heart of all political debate, embedded as it in Judeao-Christian culture.  This may be true as an analysis, but it difficult see how such linguistic embedding might be combatted.

More useful- at least heuristically – is the model of political framing set out by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt sets out five moral foundation ‘spectrums’, which he seeks to show are rooted in our evolution (and evidenced anthropologically), and which act as ‘triggers’ for our judgment on moral, and therefore (reflecting Lakoff) political issues.

These moral foundation spectrums are: 1) care/harm 2) fairness/cheating  3) liberty/oppression  4) authority/subversion  5) loyalty/betrayal 6) sanctity/degradation , and overt moral approval or disapproval of political actions and ideas is triggered by evolutionary impulses, which put us on guard against actions deemed to be at the negative end of the spectrum, and value those at the positive.   Haidt goes on to suggest that the left relies overly on just three  foundations in its political framing, giving the right an in-built advantage as they appeal to a population which pays unconscious heed to all six.

Haidt offers us a convincing story about why the right seem to find it easier to gain the upperhand in political argument, because they are able to rely on the moral triggers themselves developed in (literally) uncivilised times, when cooperation and equality of status were used as bargaining tools in the interests of self and clan, rather than as ends in themselves.   In these terms, Zoe Tyndall’s research finding that what really narks her focus groups about Labour’s immigration policy is not the policy itself, but its association with Gordon Brown disrespecting Irene Duffy.   Indeed, Haidt’s summary of the authority/subversion foundation might have been written to describe this reaction:

The authority/subversion foundation evolved in the adaptive challenge of forging relations that will benefit us within social hierarchies.  It makes us sensitive  to signs of rank or status , and to signs that other people  are (or are not) behaving properly given their position (p.154).

What Labour sought desperately to write off as a storm in a teacup (though Brown, to his credit, realised it was much bigger than that), the Right instinctively seized upon as a key part of its story about Labour as an oppressive force.  This brings me back to Hasina (pictured, below, with her children).


I have already set out her half-joking insight about the value of Hindus, and expressed it in terms of her and her family’s self-interest.  But there was more to it than that.  Hasina, as a woman who stood up for herself in a community rife with domestic violence, that what she was saying was gently subversive, not simply because it was brazen about ackowledging the ‘otherness’ in Hindus, but because it really wasn’t her place to saying such stuff, amidst an informal get together of staff (her social betters), and the strange but kindly foreigner to boot.   In so doing, her political incorrectness counted for a great deal more than the staff platitudes about us all working together as one.

In fact, Hasina reminds me a little – though not physically, of Peter Griffin, the creation of the 21st century’s most talented observer of modern American life, Seth McFarlane.  Here’s Peter (11 second clip), doing what he does best, valuing immigration and otherness by taking the piss out of authority in act an which also nods at self-interest.

How to win on immigration

So, having explored why the Right is winning on immigration, how does the left start to win?

If you follow the Haidt-Hasina-Griffin logic through, the obvious answer is that we must start to subvert.   If we take as a starting point the idea that Labour’s political hierarchy has, through its collective behaviour, triggered revulsion on the authority/subversion moral spectrum, then the only morally acceptable behaviour, in the eyes of the wider population, is for people within the same  labour movement to rebel against it.   In time, this might create the space for us to exploit other moral foundations such as  loyalty/betrayal, whereby an act in favour of immigration comes to be viewed as an act of loyalty to social class rather than an act of national betrayal, as it is currently framed (and as I’ve heard reflected on the #labourdoorstep).

To some extent, therefore, Diane Abbott is right to say that we must stand up against the current immigration narrative, though as a member of the Labour hierarchy tarred with the same brush as most MPs, she is the wrong person to lead on that.  Ultimately, Diane Abbott is no Hasina.   Or Peter Griffin.

In the current command and control structure of the Labour  party, such acts of welcome subversion are unlikely to happen on a meaningful scale, anf it looks like the Collins Review will fail to do what it might have done in opening up power beyond its current narrow confines.

This is a shame.  If the party’s “thinkers” had real gumption, they would realise that it stands to benefit, not just in terms of the opportunity to turn round the immigration debate, from opening itself up to legitimate contestation of its decision-making, and that what it preaches about the value of community organising might, instead of it being used to further depoliticize local parties, might instead be a key tool in the (re)legitimization of the party (and the leadership itself).

Even if the thinkers can’t grasp Lakoff and Haidt properly, they might at least see that the rise of UKIP is driven not just by anti-politics, but by a UKIP leadership which makes a virtue of the fact that its adherents are subversive even with the party (its attempts to control this will also hasten its decline).  Labour is made of more moral stuff than UKIP to start with, and the leadership should see the advantage in engaging with principled dissent.

In the end then, whether Labour gets it right on immigration, and all other social policy areas which it as ceded to the right because of its failure (inter alia) to read Lakoff properly, is likely to depend on the usual stuff – the capacity of the rank and file to wield influence within the party.

We’ve been here before, of course.

  1. Churm Rincewind
    February 21, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    You say that “David Hanson, Shadow Immigration Minister, talked crap about how we should recognize that people around the country were “in shock” at the changes in their community.” In what way was he talking “crap”?

    In my own neck of the woods we have an immigrant community who enthustiastically espouse FGM. Many of us are “in shock” on this issue. Are you really saying that our concerns are “crap”?

    • paulinlancs
      February 22, 2014 at 2:39 pm

      No, that’s not what I’m saying. Clearly.

  2. February 22, 2014 at 4:34 pm

    Paul, your starting point appears to be that, whatever position Labour should take, it has to start from the point of view that a very (historically) high level of immigration from a very diverse range of countries and cultures is a good thing, and that Labour’s role should be to convince people of this.

    I’m not sure that Labour wouldn’t be wasting time and energy doing this.

  3. metatone
    February 25, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    FWIW – and doubtless, since Haidt has become flavour of the year via MT at the RSA, it’s not worth much – it’s really important to realise most of Haidt’s work is flawed. There are some grains of truth in there, but I’d be wary of thinking that his portrayal of subversion is a route to a winning strategy.

    All of this is a piece with the unthinking acceptance of Portes’ work. The critique is not just about the Poles taking over butcher’s shops, it’s about acknowledging how gains from immigration accrue to the 1% (or arguably the 10%) and so the nice “aggregate gains” Portes points to are not only politically flawed, but morally so…

    From that basis of reality we might be in a position to build policies that actually make immigration a positive for us all.

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