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.