Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Letter to Sunny Hundal

On the suprising support lent by Liberal Conspiracy to Ed Balls' attack on immigration.

Dear Sunny,

Ed Balls' piece in the Observer two days ago seems to have caused a bit of a stir.

In a nutshell, his point was: we were wrong to allow so many Eastern Europeans into Britain; we should revise the free movement of labour and keep it one way only (1m Brits can live and work in Europe, but not the reverse); his government, Labour, was wrong in a) both not placing restrictions on new EU states and b) not implementing the agency workers directive.

James Macintyre and Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman dismissed Balls' "tough rhetorical stance" on the grounds that "[e]vidence -- from the BNP's trouncing, the fact that the Tories had the same 'cap' policy and lost in 2005, and the fact that even Mrs Duffy's seat was retained by Labour -- suggests this is a bit of an easy myth".

Others have noted how unfeasible it all looks that Balls is suddenly laying into entire chunks of 13 years in power while he seemed to be happily going along with it all until May 7 (he recently claimed he wasn't really pro-Iraq war too - and don't give me that "collective responsibility" stuff because Balls wasn't even in the cabinet in 2003 - he was free to speak).

I'm sure you will agree that it's baffling when an aspiring Labour leader get his words praised by Balanced Migration and even Stormfront (links not provided), whereas even the Conservatives ("on immigration Ed Balls is to the right of Enoch Powell"), the Spectator ('Balls: we have to be more bigoted') and the Daily Mail ("shameless hypocrisy") found his words ranging from opportunistic to altogether wrong.

But what I found most disheartening was the argument you put forward on your blog Liberal Conspiracy, an important voice in the left-of-centre "blogosphere" (god I hate that word, blogosphere).

For some reason, you appear to be giving Ed Balls a fantastically easy ride ('Why I'm defending Ed Balls over immigration').

Yet when only two weeks ago another leadership hopeful, Andy Burnham, spelt out concepts not dissimilar to those now backed by Ed Balls' ("Our priorities were not [the white working classes'] priorities: [...] we were in denial about the effects of immigration - on wages, housing and anti-social behaviour - in places where life is hardest", said Burnham), you dismissed it all with sarcasm and exclamation marks:

"Mr Burnham will be radically different from everyone else by having a one-issue campaign. Immigration! The issue no-one talks about. The issue that Phil Woolas did not constantly bang on about. Talking about immigration will bring back voters and help Burnham take back the country!".

It reminds me of Arsene Wenger when he complains that Man Utd players' tackles were out of order, but he's fine when his own do exactly the same.

Andy Burnham bad, Ed Balls good. And why is that?

"Because", you explained, "I think we have to accept we lost the debate on immigration and do something about it. We failed in pushing a coherent and positive narrative during all those years and now have a situation where the public is very right-wing on the issue. [...] We can't afford to ignore people's perceptions whether we like them or not".

You get that? You lose a political argument, so you may as well start agreeing with the "winning" side.

Just think if that applied to every aspect of politics. Like, the British public have consistently supported the death penalty over many years as the best way to combat crime. Does it mean we should concede defeat and look sympathetic with "public perceptions", or shall we still reject calls for the introduction of death row because we believe they're wrong?

Or...Those old enough to remember will note how, throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, Tories and assorted supporters of Section 28 would routinely dismiss the pro-LGBT argument by saying that public opinion was simply hostile to same-sex relationships. It was true. Opinion polls at the time did not leave ground to interpretation. But we didn't give up the fight because we were a minority.

For, call me thick, but there is a simple, unanswered question here: are Ed Balls' words to be backed for reasons of PR - that is to say, so that the left doesn't look like it's ignoring "people's perceptions" - or because they make for good, honest, coherent policy? Is Balls right because his (newly adopted) principles are right, or simply out of political expediency? Do we believe in them, or do we just go along because we're tired of fighting an uphill struggle with a tabloid-led rhetoric that has started to seep through society?

There is a fallacy the size of the Gulf of Mexico in your line of reasoning, Sunny. You later commented:

"The changed reality is that we lost the debate on immigration because of the lack of political courage on behalf of politicians and because the left didn’t have a narrative on this either. We avoided the issue and now it’s become an albatross".

So, on one side you criticise the "lack of political courage" (presumably to point out that what the left needed to do was to tackle the problems for which people blame immigrants rather than the immigrants). On the other, the moment the issue becomes "an albatross", we should just somersault the other way and go along with a bit of Eastern European-bashing because it chimes, apparently, with "people's perceptions".

You wrote that "[J]ust screaming racist everytime a politician talks about it is not getting us anywhere and frankly I’m getting sick of that too".

But no-one said Balls was being "racist". Why are you saying that? I don't think anyone, for a second, believes he was being "racist". Opportunistic, maybe. Unprincipled, possibly. A hypocrite, surely. But racist? That's a red herring, my friend.What next? Are you going to say that "immigration is a taboo subject" too?

Those, like me, who are shocked by Balls' road-to-damascus conversion do so not on the basis of "racism", but because we think it's unfeasible, it's wrong, it's ill-conceived.

If Balls really wanted to "reconnect" with traditional Labour voters he could, for example, go further than just pay lip-service to "the agency workers directive" that, lest we forget, only six months ago he himself contributed to rejecting.

He could endorse Jon Cruddas' analysis of how endemic casualisation has led to a race to the bottom in the workplace. He could look at the central issue of affordable housing.

He could choose to go the Ed Miliband way, making the living wage "central to his campaign" or calling for the introduction of "wage ratios" between top and bottom salaries in the work place.

Because, fundamentally, these are the battles that nobody is fighting. There are plenty of parties, groups and newspapers setting migrant workers against British workers as they advocate that there are "too many immigrants" taking our jobs and depressing wages.

But very few arguing loud and clear that, if only working people were paid properly and were handed back appropriate protection in their work contracts, the issue of immigration would probably eventually self-regulate.

Until the root of the problem is addressed - the fact that in this country it is possible to pay people a non-living wage, sack them on a whim and hand them an existence cut out of job insecurity - tuning in to the dog whistle politics of "too much immigration" will just remain that: dog whistle politics.


Patrick Gray said...

Yes I too was disappointed to find out that Ed Balls keeps playing the I-never-really-agree-with-what-we-did card. It's nothing short of pathetic.

If I was PM and Balls was one of my serving ministers I wouldn't trust him one bit given his recent two-faced performances.

On to the point, I welcome your analysis that immigration is too often used as a scapegoat.

What New Labour failed to do while in power was to deny for too long that there were serious problems with housing, cost of living and quality of work.

Deprived of empathy, many people would often follow their impulses and simply turn to the newest around and the most vulnerable to vent their frustration.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

To be honest Claude, I've given up with Lib Con and Sunny I'm afraid, I thought it was a place I could go but it turns out, it ain't.

Anita said...

What a load of bull from Ed Ball and his apologists. This country is not racist. DESPITE massive bombardment from the tabloids, still voters did not reward xenophobic parties.

Stan Moss said...

FFS Balls. Just do us a favour and disappear. Retire from politics. Gracefully. You were right at the core of Gordon Brown's project. You failed. You became a figure of scorn. Spare us the hypocrisy and the u-turns and give somebody younger and with more integrity a chance.