Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A return to Balls.

Sunny Hundal, as he promised in successive tweets, has argued in defence of Ed Balls' Observer article on immigration. He concedes some of the criticisms, and stakes his defence on a number of issues, but principally on the ground of what he calls "pragmatism". Namely, he says that the Labour Party has to attend to what its core economically left-wing but socially conservative working class voters are saying. He further argues that since the Left "lost the debate" over immigration, it is time to accept reality and move on. "You can't win a war you've just lost," he implores.

The trouble with this narrative is three-fold. First of all, the stereotype of a socially conservative Labour core was always misleading. The core Labour vote was less motivated by the issue of immigration than swing voters were. That isn't to say that there isn't hostility to immigration in the working class today - there is, and Labour bears a great deal of responsibility for this. But is it to say that immigrant-bashing isn't aimed at heartland Labour voters, but more likely at swing voters and Tories. Secondly, why is it that when Labour politicians want to woo the 'core' vote, they always omit the business about being economically left-wing, and accentuate the socially reactionary? Actually, more to the point, is there even a clear dividing line between the social and economic in this case? Is immigration not an economic policy? If the working class is economically left-wing on account of class interests, then a policy that restricts the free movement of labour in Europe (while capital, goods and services freely move across borders) is one that harms working class interests by weakening its bargaining power. If workers cannot move freely to wherever jobs are available, this means artificially forcing them into unemployment, which means strengthening the position of employers with respect to Labour. Why is it impossible to imagine any Labour candidate, barring John McDonnell, articulating an argument along those lines?

Thirdly, as to the 'debate' over immigration. Sunny asserts that the left can't just blame the media for winding people up - quite. New Labour took power while the Tory media was raising a shit-storm about asylum seekers, which Blair et al were moderately dissident on. They won the election, nonetheless. Immigration was way down the list of priorities for most voters. But Labour then proceeded not merely to embrace the Conservative Party's policies and rhetoric but to institiutionalise a whole new system of repression for migrants. Subsequent reports, initiatives and legislation, particularly after the north-east riots of 2001, framed minorities as troublesome, alien substrata at odds with British values. While past anti-immigration legislation was sold as a necessary way of promoting tolerance and multiculturalism, by carefully controlling the 'fears' of the white majority, in the era since 2000 the implicit logic - which treats the presence of 'non-natives' as a problem - has become explicit, as immigration restrictions have been tied to an ideological attack on Britain's domestic minorities. Thus, the 'debate' has been framed for the past decade by a government pushing a neo-Powellite ideology at the level of rhetoric and policy.

Ed Balls, far from breaking with New Labour on this, is continuing the trend at an escalated pitch. That is reflected not merely in his attitude to immigration, but in his decision to wholeheartedly endorse a report supporting racist teachers, and his willingness to participate in moral panic over Muslim faith schools. His latest bit of demagoguery is to cite the prospect of Turkey's accession to the EU, and the prospect of unskilled Turkish workers coming to Britain. Vote Balls to stop the Muslim hordes taking your job. Of course, the trouble is that Turkey isn't going to join the EU in the first place, so the issue is entirely confected. France and Germany, the union's key powers, are implacably opposed to Turkish accession. Even if it did, the evidence is that its workers would only come to Britain if there were jobs for them here. That's what workers do in any economy where they have free movement, whether in a national state, or an economic union. If Balls was merely interested in reconnecting with the working class, why would he invent an issue with clear racist overtones and seek to use that to advance his leadership ambitions? What sort of man does that make him? And isn't there a lesson in New Labour's past conduct with respect to British Asians, and Muslims in particular, that anti-immigrant politics always redounds to the disadvantage of domestic minorities? Isn't that, as experts on immigration policy such as Bikhu Parekh have long argued, the lesson of anti-immigrant politics, period? What sort of friend would Balls be to those core Labour voters?

Another basis of Sunny's defence is that while aggregate studies may show little impact from Eastern European migration, this doesn't exclude the possibility of localised problems that are obscured by national studies. It surely doesn't. But if there is evidence of this, Balls doesn't cite it, and neither does Sunny. And if it does cause problems, surely the answer is not to insist on imposing restrictions on the numbers who can migrate to the UK, but to contrive solutions that specifically address those problems. Because Balls is actually going farther than Cameron here. Cameron wants to impose a cap on non-EU immigration. Balls wants a cap on all immigration, full-stop. Sunny suggests that Balls is just bluffing in this respect, and that we shouldn't pay it any mind. But actually, it is his only concrete policy. He may be bluffing, but what a racist, irresponsible bluff. And it is an odd "defence" that writes off Balls' key proposal in such an off-hand way. Once you've allowed for bluffing and hype to wind up those 'core' Labour voters, discounted the 'Turkish peril', and found no reliable evidence of a negative impact of immigration on British workers' wages or conditions - in short, once you've found no empirical support for the problem Balls claims to identify, and discounted his concrete solution as a bluff - what is there left to defend?