Hazel Blears and the Labour Right

labhod0401.jpg(This picture is  a genuine Labour party poster from the 2005 Hodge Hill by-election)

 Unelected chairperson of the Labour Party, Hazel Blears, has got into hot water recently by stereotyping immigrants and suggesting the public associated them with anti-social behaviour. This came only days after the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown said he wanted to see ‘British workers for the British jobs’.

The remarkable thing here is that new Labour have managed to get themselves to the right of the Tories over race and immigration, allowing Conservative Shadow Home Secretary David Davis to criticise them from the left! He said: “It is wholly irresponsible for ministers to stereotype any group in society. … It augurs badly for any idea of responsible government when both the would-be prime minister and would-be deputy leader of the Labour Party seem perfectly happy to use ultra-sensitive subjects for short-term political ends.”

Nor is such scapegoating particularly popular. In the Manchester Evening News, the paper which covers Blears’ Salford constituency, readers comments were also more tolerant than hazel Blears.A reader from Eccles wrote: “How does putting 10-12 people together in one property lead to them being on the street drinking? Sure there are plenty of people on the street drinking, but I’m yet to see any immigrants among them (unless they have been trained to say “Here’ya mate” like a native).”

And a Salford resident wrote: “Here she goes again putting her foot in it. Does Hazel Blears know anything about Salford? The immigrants coming into the city actually want to work and keep themselves to themselves which is a lot more than can be said of Mrs Blears native constituents. …  In Broughton over the weekend a large group of around 30 youths continued (as they do each weekend) to drink in the street, smash up cars and home, shout abuse, set fire to property and make Salford a living nightmare – these are not immigrants, these are native Salfordians – wake up and smell the burning Wheelie Bins Blears!”

This strategy of pandering to the right over race issues is disastrous. What is more Labour are simply stoking up cynccism because the rhetoric of toughness contradicts the experience of working class people who see ever greater number of immigrants, but no recognition from the government that it is the communities least able to cope with the additional numbers who are being asked to cope.

As Jon Cruddas has written: “it is clear that we are witnessing an ever more pronounced polarisation within the labour market – and wider society – often described as the ‘hour glass’ economy. On the one hand, there exists a primary labour market – the knowledge economy. On the other, there is an expanding secondary labour market where the largest growth is occurring – in service-related elementary occupations, administrative and clerical occupations, sales occupations, caring, personal service jobs and the like.

“New Labour’s political strategy has been driven by the dynamics at work at the top end of this hour glass – the political inference being that those who occupy the bottom half will always stick with Labour as they have no other viable alternative. For purposes of political positioning, the worldview has developed which renders the working class invisible and downgrades the needs of working class communities. Yet paradoxically, New Labour has overseen an economic strategy characterised by the expansion in the demand for relatively low waged work. In short, empirically it has brought about the development of a thriving bottom of the hour glass. This mix has tended to create a brittle tension between the narrative of New Labour and the empirical realities of the modern world. New Labour presents a picture of immigration in England for both the purposes of policy and public relations which is necessarily wrong because of the evidence on which it is based. This clashes with the experience of British people, whose experience of immigration is concerned with how daily life is affected by migration, and who see only the gap between Labour policy and migration issues.

“This gap needs to be bridged in order to confront the problems caused by migration and show the public that these problems are being addressed in a serious way. Furthermore, the benefits of immigration must be emphasised. This tension also characterises the politics and the economics of migration. On the one hand we triangulate around migration and race given the prejudices of the swing voter in the swing seat.

“Thus the importance of the swing voter lies behind the portrait painted by Labour: tight control over immigration and a protection against the negative aspects of these population flows. “

Jon Cruddas is exactly correct here. The new immigrants do put additional demand into the housing, education and health sectors, and the already stretched resources of our poorer communities need supplementing from central government to cope. But instead of that New Labour contributes to a climate of hostility towards immigrants, for example the prejudiced stereotyping from Hazel Blears, and the policy suggestions from Margaret Hodge that have so boosted the BNP.

This is partly, as Cruddas suggest, due to the science of New Labour in triangulating around the concerns of swing voters in marginal seats. However there is another process at work which Cruddas has not addressed, and which is more worrying, which is the positioning of Labour as a party of Alf Garnett, in a misguided attempt to bolster its working class vote by pandering to prejudice rather than presenting a progressive policy agenda. This is a similar but subtley different process addressed towards the core vote, where New Labour stresses social conformity. As seen in the 2005 Hodge Hill by-election this can lead Labour to conduct a distinctly right-wing election campaign, pandering to the prejudices of voters, in echo of Thatcher’s defence of “people like us”.

Nor was this an aberration, Liam Byrne the victorious labour candidate in that election is an affirmed Blairite who is now immigration minister! You can view all his election material here. Labour decided to contest this marginal working class constituency on the issues of opposing immigration, and authoritarian measures against anti-social behaviour.

I have argued elsewhere about the changes in the Labour Party: “the Labour Party has a broadly progressive electoral constituency, and historical links with the trade union infrastructure, but it is in continued antagonism with both of these elements. Nevertheless, although the Party no longer articulates the aspirations of these support groups, they do provide a constraint upon it, and mediate the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.” The important point here is that the electoral support of Labour is broadly to the left of the party over a number of issues, such as the Iraq war, opposition to privatisation, support for trade unions, etc. But New Labour also know that on the issues of race and immigration, and social conformity, they can mobilise their electoral base around a right wing communitarian agenda.As I have argued elsewhere about the changes in the Labour Party: “the Labour Party has a broadly progressive electoral constituency, and historical links with the trade union infrastructure, but it is in continued antagonism with both of these elements.

Nevertheless, although the Party no longer articulates the aspirations of these support groups, they do provide a constraint upon it, and mediate the transformation of the Labour Party, so that it appears less dramatic than it is.” The important point here is that the electoral support of Labour is broadly to the left of the party over a number of issues, such as the Iraq war, opposition to privatisation, support for trade unions, etc. But New Labour also know that on the issues of race and immigration, and social conformity, they can mobilise their electoral base around a right wing communitarian agenda. Interestingly, no voice within the Labour party distanced itself from the right wing campaign in Hodge Hill.

11 comments on “Hazel Blears and the Labour Right

  1. Good post, and congrats on the new look blog. I was unaware of the St.George’s flag poster, but it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. As I wrote in the latest post over at http://republic-of-teesside.blogspot.com (plug plug) I’m convinced that certain New Labour ministers are intent on outflanking even the BNP when it comes to talking nasty on immigration. In fact, it’s pretty obvious the fascists have been lapping up all the stuff from Hodge about immigrants taking people’s housing; Kelly calling for less translation services; and Reid boasting about “throwing out” record numbers of asylum seekers. It’s the most reactionary kind of rhetoric and totally contrary to the advice given by the government’s own independent race monitor: “The government has an important role in encouraging a more objective and well-informed discussion on immigration…” But hardly surprising. And then Blair has the audacity to criticise the media by singling out The Independent. What about The Sun and the Daily Star’s proven lies about asylum seekers eating donkeys and swans or god knows what else? Now I wonder why he didn’t mention these more flagrant examples of media cynicism in his bitter rambling yesterday…

  2. Richard Carey on said:

    I can see what you’re looking at, but this constant rightwing/leftwing banter is so simplistic. You should watch “Love thy neighbour” to remind yourself that the white guy was Labour through and through. It’s patronising to lionise the working classes, and then, as soon as they complain about something, to shout “Alf Garnet!”.

    If you’re saying Labour are trying to head of the BNP by being a bit nasty, I agree. But don’t forget, they’ve presided over the highest level of immigration in our History, and because of our position in the EU, and the EU’s control over policy, there’s not a lot they can do about much of it. However they can be faulted by not guarding our ports effectively, which benefits people smuggler gangs who are murderously ruthless.

    Saying “immigration is good” is like saying “rain is good” – it depends how much. You know as well as I do that an influx of cheap immigrant labour drives down wages, that’s why it’s good from a business point of view, and not good for wage earners. This has nothing to do with prejudice, it’s simple economics.

    You yourself admit that there are problems exacerbated by immigration: “The new immigrants do put additional demand into the housing, education and health sectors, and the already stretched resources of our poorer communities need supplementing from central government to cope.”

    I can understand your wish to strike a pose, but be honest, this is a very difficult issue. Have a go at Labour for playing up to such issues, but realise it’s only lip service, and don’t demonise ordinary working class people for being concerned about this, which they are, notwithstanding the comments from Salford.

    (Good luck with your new site)

  3. don’t demonise ordinary working class people for being concerned about this

    I don’t know. You’re right about the economics, but I’m not sure that concern about immigration as an issue tracks economic causes. In particular, I get the impression is that this country could take a lot more Poles without any significant level of disquiet – Polish tinned food, Polish library books and Polish signs in newsagents’ windows don’t seem to bother anyone greatly. But then, they’re white.

    Racism is a reality in this society, unfortunately, and it’s when existing racist beliefs appear to be confirmed by economic pressures that the trouble really starts. Blears is doing her constituency a massive disservice by playing to the racist beliefs rather than the reality.

    Besides which, Blears’ comment is just bizarre – it’s as if somebody bet her she couldn’t get Powellite racism and anti-social behaviour rhetoric into the same sentence. She did something similar on Question Time last night, only this time the sentence started with anti-terrorist legislation and ended with anti-social behaviour. For Blears it’s all about the ASB. (Did you know that people are ‘crying out’ for more CCTV?)

  4. I saw Blears on Question Time last night and indeed it was unbelievable esp. her going on about CCTV and that this anti-terror legislation was important. Blah, Blah,. God she was a pain.
    Blears.. on yer bike!

    Slightly off topic… but the love-in between Cruddas and Harman on Question Time was very funny but nauseating. Oh, I just wish Harman would give it a break re: her commitment to families and women when we know it is a load of tosh!

  5. Actually Richard, I think you have misread me about the Alf Garnett issue.

    I think it is entirely legitimate for people to be worried about the impact of population movements on services, housing and working conditions. However there is a diffence between concern about the impact of immigration as a process, and hostility to immigrants as people. The government is playing a mendacious game by (as jin Cruddas very perceptively points out) both encouraging the process of immigration, while simultaneoulsy pandering to prejudcie against immigrants. The worst possible combination of policy and message.

    The Alf Garnett stereotype is of a working class Tory who dislikes people who are different . The Labour right, personified by Hazel Blears in this instance, seem to have a strategy of seeking working class votes based upon promoting social conformity, and demonising not only immigrants, but also hijab wearers, smokers, youths in hoodies and fox hunters!

    As Phil points out “Anti-social beaviour”, which we might characterise as non-conformity to arbitrary cultural norms, is the new Rock and Roll for the Labour right. And as a libertarian, Richard, I would hiope you would share my concern about this. It should not be the business of government to whip up concerns about groups of immigrants “drinking in the street”, which was Blears’ point, when not only is it untrue, but in any event should be entirely their own business whether they drink in the street or not, provided they don’t break the criminal law!

    Phil – My union branch is very active in organising Polish migrant workers, and our experience is that recruiting migrant workers into the union is actually strengthening workplace organisation to the benefit of the native British workers. BUt we are seeing racism against white Polish imigrants in the South West.

  6. Richard Carey on said:

    ““Anti-social beaviour”, which we might characterise as non-conformity to arbitrary cultural norms, is the new Rock and Roll for the Labour right”

    If you ask someone what they think of as “anti-social behaviour” they will give a straightforward answer, about behaviour that is essentially selfish, and takes no account of other people – hence the term “anti-social”. If you’re a sociology professor wreathed in pipe smoke, your definition may stand, but only as long as you stay in the ivory tower.

    I know I’ve been guilty of “anti-social behaviour” in the past, mostly when drunk, but I wouldn’t seek to justify it by reference to “arbitrary social norms”.

    Again, I will criticise this talk of the “Labour right”. I would say it owes more to the authoritarian streak in socialism, which is neither left nor right. The paradigm of left/right is so simplistic, as to be pretty much useless.

    As for demonising immigrants, it’s not helpful to having an intelligent discussion of a complex issue, if one side does nothing but fling this accusation at anyone pointing out the problems that it causes. Besides anything else, it’s dodging the issue.

    The question, as I see it, is quantative. Surely there must be a point after which there is too much immigration? In which case, we should base policies on immigration on this premise. To reject the idea that there is such a thing as “too much immigration” just seems non-sensical.

  7. Richard

    I do not justify anti-social behaviour, but neither should it be the business for the state to use the law to stop people being selfish and inconsiderate in their private social and behavioural choices.

    Left and right is not without meaning, although we could dispute some borderline areas. The political left believes in pursuing economic as well as political equality, and the right beleive that formal political equality is sufficient. Traditionally within the Labour Party the division also embraced the left supporting a fully socialised economy, and the right supporting the maintnenace of capitalism – but the divisions are now less defined.

    The problem for the right in the Labour Party is that if they abandon altogether an agenda of pursuing social equality, then why should working class people vote for them? Which is why cyncially they pander to prejudices.

    On the question of demonising immigrants. The issue under discussion is not the number of immigrants – that is a discussion I am prepared to have so I am not avoiding it – but here Hazel Blears has specifically singled out the anti-social behaviour of immigrants. And the point I am seekking to make is that this is a symptomatic of the communitarian agenda of the right wing in the Labour Party.

    This is not avoiding debate, but is an entirely valid area of discussion in its own right.

  8. Richard Carey on said:

    Fair enough, mate. I thought Harman praising Cruddas on “Question Time” was funny, you could see the cold steel whirring in her mind – “who can do me least harm”, but she blew it with her sickly pledge to play Jane to Gordon’s Tarzan.

    “this is a symptomatic of the communitarian agenda of the right wing in the Labour Party.”

    This agenda you speak of is not reflected in policy, and only amounts to a few dubious utterances.

  9. Richard – aren’t ASBOs part of a communitarian agenda? i.e. using the law agianst people who are non-conformist, but haven’t actually broken the criminal law.

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