Saturday, 16 April 2011

Two cheers for Ed and Yvette on the one-trick pony

Cameron does rabble-rousing speech to Tory Party faithful about immigration, pressing all the right buttons. Business as usual in the run-up to the locals. Ah, it must be nearly May, then?

Or was it a little more clever than that? And are we, at last, learning to be clever back?

Yes and yes.

First, I should like to congratulate Ed and Yvette for not falling into the bear trap set by Cameron - as identified by Dan Hodges - of a knee-jerk traditional leftist response, saying the speech was unfair or racist; f0r attacking Cameron’s execution of his own ideas, and the division in his ranks instead. This was perceived by many as an attack on Cameron from the right, although this is probably a semantic point. 

It was the smart move, which is more important. Put it this way, they criticised him without moving to the left (not quite the same thing), and in doing so, avoided antagonising the electorate on an issue where there is clearly strong feeling. Interestingly, as Political Betting pointed out, a recent poll indicates a falloff in concern about immigration, however, as Mike Smithson said in that same article, we need to know whether it is a blip or something real. Evidence on the doorstep for all parties seems to say otherwise.

If only, in contrast, everyone had had the same common sense. But no, the left, spearheaded by the Guardian (one predictable headline screamed “Immigration speech was a dog-whistle for the right”) insisted into falling into the same old trap. Even my very sensible and esteemed colleagues Anthony Painter and Sunder Katwala found it difficult to find anything good to say about the speech. For my part, I thought Cameron was making a few decent points, and a few ropey ones, but in general was quite reasonable. He was certainly nowhere near (as some, perhaps would have liked to see, so they could dismiss it more easily) his French counterpart, Sarkozy, in the others’ circuitous immigrant-bashing dressed up as egalité. And that is for the simple reason that the British are, at heart, a highly tolerant people who just wouldn’t have liked it.

Second, I should like to congratulate them because they are right. Cameron can be cack-handed but, as previously observed at the Centre Left, he is not a racist. Immigration is an issue and thinking otherwise is futile. What’s more it is an issue which grown-up politicians of all stripes have been dealing with in a more or less similar manner for the past twenty-odd years, including ourselves. Quite well, actually. Whingeing about the Tories’ plans with none of our own is not an option.

People take advantage of our immigration and welfare systems not because they are bad people. But because we, as a country, are stupid enough to let them. And people fail to learn English because we fail to insist on it: why on earth would you do it if you had no incentive to? Although, as some sensibly observed, it’s not very clever both to criticise this and simultaneously to cut public funds for English lessons (doh).

But there are only two cheers. Ed has shown himself to be prepared, finally, not to follow comfort-zone arguments within his own party, as Sunder pointed out in another post. But he has not yet challenged them with an alternative. The third cheer will come when we have our own, distinctive policy. Cue outraged intake of breath. A policy? Yes, only a high-level one, I swear.

The problem with our response on Thursday was this: it’s a one-trick pony. We can use it once, but not repeatedly. The next time Cameron gives a speech, we cannot just crow that Vince Cable disagrees (because at some point he’ll either shut up or be sacked). Neither can we crow that Cameron’s numbers are wrong, because he’ll fix them. We need to have, at least at high-level, some kind of alternative. Either that, or we decide to cede this entire policy area to the Tories and just agree.

Although, tactically, that is an option, it’s not a smart one (and especially not if the reason is to merely avoid difficult discussions within our own party). We spent years to get ourselves in a position where we were felt to be credible on immigration. It is not enough now to simply agree with the Tories or avoid confrontation with them: and neither is it an option to return to the do-nothing comfort zone. We need to have a strong and decent alternative. We played smartly, we rebutted well and showed good tactical instincts, for a change. But this is an issue which is not going to go away, and next time we will need to do better.

In the meantime, it would be good if we within the Party itself could get over our endemic aversion to having a sensible discussion on the issue, as well as anything else which might touch, however tangentially, on race. In modern political parlance, we of the party rank and file don’t seem to “get it”. We were never quite comfortable with the policies our own Blair, Straw and Blunkett ten years ago, even though most of the world seemingly thought them fair and reasonable. Perhaps we should now, with the benefit of hindsight, give them a little credit.


  1. Immigration is a biggie. UKIP will pick up ex Labour votes as the Tories did in '79.

  2. You could be right there about UKIP, Ciaran. Which is a little worrying in itself: how do people jump from the centre-left directly to the fringe right? Because they think the centre-left is hopelessly out of touch with their day-to-day lives.

    And the Tories, on the basis of today, will pick up any of those who are dissatisfied on immigration and don't go to UKIP, until we have an alternative.

  3. We need a definition of centre left. For the far left you are actually right wing!

  4. Could be. I actually chose the name as I thought it was time that I reclaimed it from those I don't really think are centre-left but claim to be!

  5. It is a good name "marketing wise".

  6. LabourList reports today that Ed is suggesting that we were maybe too lax on immigration.

    Two-and-a-half-cheers, then.

  7. Who let 2 million Poles in overnight with no thought to housing, health, education? This will bite Labour on the bum in years to come...


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