Pandering to the bigots? An exchange on Ed Miliband, immigration and the nation-state

Is Labour justified in speaking to the British people's fears on immigration, or are they legitimising the far right? How far do the English retain their racist attitudes, or is England at ease with its modern multiculturalism? And what is the case for secure borders in a world where the role of the nation-state is under question? In the following exchange, Anthony Barnett of OurKingdom and Simon Parker of Refugee Action York cut to the heart of the immigration question. 

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Simon Parker
21 September 2012

Last June, Simon Parker sent Anthony Barnett an article for possible publication on Ed Miliband's immigration speech to the IPPR. Anthony responded, not planning for this to be published. What followed in the intervening months was an intense exchange on the left, the immigration question and the future of the nation-state. It was sent round the OK editorial team, and we decided with Simon to publish the dialogue in full, below. 

Simon Parker

When Ed Miliband rose to address the Institute of Public Policy Research in June, one might have thought he would be spoiled for choice in terms of the policy areas with which to belabour an increasingly unpopular coalition government.

Tax evasion and corporate greed, the potential collapse of the Euro, the privatisation of the NHS, the raiding of public pensions, compulsory workfare for the unemployed, the removal of housing benefits for the under 25s, the outsourcing of police, prison and probation services, the squandering of £10 billion on a nuclear weapons system we could never use, the attack on comprehensive education and social mobility.

One could, unfortunately, go on…

No, instead the Labour leader chose to grasp a different nettle and turn his attention to “people's concerns on immigration”.

On the face of it, what could be wrong with wanting an “open discussion” about immigration? We have, as Miliband reminds us, experienced “the largest peacetime migration in recent history” and polls and focus groups regularly reveal that immigration is second only to the economy as a key issue for voters. However, Ed Miliband’s achievement in this “nuanced and intelligent speech”, according to John Harris, was to understand popular fear around immigration not as an index of xenophobia or racism but as a manifestation of “an economy that is fast eating away at people's security”.

Taking his cue from David Cameron’s “I met a 40 year old black sailor from Plymouth” approach to immigration research, Ed Miliband’s speech was scattered with anecdotes from constituents and party members. Thus we learn of a local Labour Party member who claimed that a chicken factory in Doncaster was employing Eastern European workers from a recruitment agency for less than minimum wage and that “they were sleeping nineteen or twenty to a house”. Although happily we were assured, Miliband’s informant “got the union involved to sort it out”. Doing a passable impression of Frank Field and Immigration Watch’s Sir Andrew Green in their Today programme pomp, Miliband solemnly declared:

“But there are lots of stories like this, of wages having been pushed down. They are the hidden stories of Britain. They are the stories that make people angry.”

We are no longer invited to challenge, as Gordon Brown so fatefully did, the disturbing narratives that emerge from modest witnesses like Gillian Duffy - who point out that due to the arrival of thousands of workers from Eastern Europe and “other sections”, “the country is in a state”. Clearly ‘something needs to be done’, even though as Mrs Duffy and Ed Milband both accept “we are in Europe and we just have to accept them”.

But the “nasty, brutish and short term” UK labour market that Ed Miliband suddenly appears to lament was not created in the last two years. It is the result of three decades of ‘nasty and brutish’ neoliberal governments in which, during its New Labour incarnation, Miliband played a number of key economic roles including at Cabinet level. According to an Oxford University COMPAS study conducted in the last years of the Brown government, “Britain’s labour force is one of the least well-protected in the OECD”.  The report goes on to quote a TUC estimate that “there are at least two million vulnerable workers, i.e. in ‘precarious work that places people at risk of continuing poverty and injustice resulting from an imbalance of power in the employer-work relationship’” (p 33).

Contrary to the impression given by Miliband’s informants, the indigenous working population has little to fear from East Europeans taking their jobs, as the COMPAS study explains “…if there are negative impacts on wages and employment [as a result of net labour migration] they are experienced by: previous immigrants, especially those with limited English language skills; manual workers in jobs that do not require language proficiency; individuals on benefits or otherwise marginalised in the labour force” (p 47 emphasis added).

Ironically, where there are the largest concentrations of children of immigrants, like the Milibands, in Ed’s beloved London—levels of racism are among the lowest in the country. And as most of the rest of the country languishes in recession, London’s highly globalised economy continues to grow, precisely because, as Saskia Sassen points out, ‘informalisation is actually linked to key features of advanced urban capitalism’. This is not without its costs—but the low wages, substandard housing and precarious employment that results from informalisation is paid for by the migrant workforce as a direct result of the labour market deregularisation that Miliband’s party once championed.

Although the Labour leader is right to point out the folly of Theresa May’s pledge to cut off the migrant fuel supply to the British economy, he is caught in the bi-polar disorder of his own rhetoric,“promising to look at caps, limits and numbers” while pledging to exclude Croatian workers for as long as European law permits –  at the same time as holding the door open to the other 440 million inhabitants of the current EU member states.

But even this discussion misses the point, because Miliband’s intervention was not so much about the caustic effects of globalising neoliberalism on Britain’s ordinary households and families—it was about bigotry. Or more precisely, it was about Ed Miliband apologising for his predecessor’s use of the ‘B’ word to describe the many existing and potential Labour voters who are “worried about immigration”.

A bigot, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is an “obstinate and intolerant adherent of a creed or view”.  But unlike Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband claims not to have met any, and certainly not in his own constituency.

“…when I talk about immigration I know I must be true not just to my mum and dad but to other parents across the country, like those in my constituency, Doncaster North. They are worried about the future. They want there to be good jobs. They want their communities to grow strong. They worry about immigration. They worry it might make things harder rather than easier for them and their kids. Worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration, does not make them bigots. Not in any way.”

The perverse logic is undeniable—“worrying about immigration” and holding “obstinate and intolerant” ideas about immigrants are not the same thing, even when that worry is an obstinate and intolerant one.

The conceit at the heart of Ed Miliband’s speech is that if you take away the negative economic and public goods effects of immigration, such worries will subside and eventually disappear. Ed’s father Ralph had a more perceptive understanding of the John Bull psyche.  Soon after his arrival from Belgium in 1940, Miliband père confided to his diary:

“The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world... When you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show them how things are. They have the greatest contempt for the continent in general and for the French in particular…Since the defeat, they have the greatest contempt for the French Army... England first. This slogan is taken for granted by the English people as a whole. To lose their empire would be the worst possible humiliation.”

Ed Miliband’s intention is not to challenge that great contempt for the continent, but to channel it through what he most feels comfortable with—supply-side tinkering:

“…if we are to address people’s concerns, I believe Labour must change its approach to immigration. Recognising the costs as well as the benefits. And above all recognising that we can answer people’s concerns about immigration if we change the way our economy works.”

Insisting that employment agencies employ more workers from the UK, obliging local authorities to enforce minimum wage laws, requiring local employers to tell Jobcentre Plus when they have more than 25% foreign workers, will not induce the voters of Doncaster or Rochdale to love their East European neighbours. But it will, as the Daily Mail headlines assure us, take away the association of rascism or bigotry with the expressed need for an ‘open conversation’ about immigration.

For Ed Miliband and the Labour Party, the lesson of the last general election was not the absence of policies that connected the party sufficiently with the voters, but a perceived lack of sympathy between the leadership and “the concerns of working people”.

Miliband’s message to l’Angleterre profonde from a polyglot global metropolis that increasingly speaks beyond and against its values is “we hear you, we respect you and we want the country to be more like you.”

It is a limited and limiting vision of Britain, and one that will do nothing to breathe new economic life into its most blighted communities. It may, however, achieve its intention of persuading Mrs Duffy and her fellow immigration worriers back into the Labour fold. After all, as Ralph Miliband wrote some 50 years ago:

“Of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic—not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour.”

While the Scottish Parliament shows itself to be capable of cultural and constitutional innovation and openness, the Westminster parliamentary system speaks in an increasingly introspective monotone to a complex social reality that cannot be captured and which does not recognise itself in the besieged caricature of Ed and Dave’s Little Britain. As George Galloway has shown in Bradford West, Labour could pay a heavy electoral price for ignoring that complex reality in favour of a policy of ‘England first’. The lowest hanging political fruit are also often the first to rot.


Anthony Barnett

Dear Simon,

Thanks very much for this. It made me read the speech on immigration and while I'm very critical of Ed Miliband – I was at his British/English speech given in the same month at the Royal Festival Hall and felt the smack of John Major – I'm not sure what you are arguing here.

There is a logic to Miliband’s approach. I'm not defending it, but it’s surprisingly coherent and stems from his argument that the UK needs a 'responsible' capitalism, not the neoliberalism that New Labour championed.

Of course, you can attack him for being in that government: he joined it late and was not responsible for creating New Labour but he was in the Cabinet that oversaw it as you argue. But he says he is changing Labour policy in two ways. First, he supports immigration:    

“There is nothing wrong with anyone employing Polish builders, a French chef, or a Swedish childminder. I am not going to promise ‘British jobs for British workers’.”

Second, he says that Labour was indifferent to its impacts:

“…by the end of our time in office, we were too dazzled by globalisation and too sanguine about its price. By focusing too much on globalization and migration's impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – and the people who were being squeezed. And, to those who lost out, Labour was too quick to say 'like it or lump it' ... immigration in the last few years collided with a labour market that is too often nasty, brutish and short term.”

Like you I'd be much more critical, but by the standards of UK politics this is a clear shift from New Labour. It's also coherent in that he is saying that by ‘responsible capitalism’ he means more skills, training, at least the minimum wage and effective enforcement of it - i.e. there is some kind of actual policy being promised. Here's a cut and paste of the section:

“We need to enforce the laws we currently have on the protection of wages. It is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government that we introduced the national minimum wage.

It was a great Labour innovation that we should put an end to the idea of poverty pay.

But unfortunately, too many people are not receiving its protection.

We need to toughen up the enforcement of the minimum wage so that employers understand not paying it is a real risk.

Just seven employers have been prosecuted since it was introduced.

We should increase the fines on employers who breach the law and pay below the minimum wage.

These fines are currently set very low – at £5,000 – and should be increased to at least something that would act as more of a deterrent, and should at least be doubled.

And we should consult on the idea of local authorities playing a role as well as the HMRC in enforcing the minimum wage.”

Again, this is well short of being enough but it isn't vacuous. It isn't dog whistle. He is saying he welcomes immigration but Labour will do something to stop it depressing wages and making employment conditions worse, it will police this and insist UK companies are not let off the hook of training and skilling. I was quite surprised at the coherence. Of course, there remains the question, will he actually do what he says, but that is a different critique.  

Then you quote from Ralph's wartime diary saying that the English are “the most nationalist people in the world” and then say his son is failing to confront this and seeks to merely channel it.  The second quote from Ralph about the Labour Party is fair game but what are we to make of this first? Why should the private views of the father be visited upon the son 70 years later? And you seem to be saying that they are true, ie that you agree the English - now, today - are the most nationalist people in the world. If this is what you think then you should say so. Personally I disagree. I think this is a more multi-cultural country than the USA where racism is deeper, England is less nationalist in some ways than Germany, certainly than Russia, and China is fantastically nationalist. The implication is that you think most English are indeed bigots. If so, you mustn't hide behind Ralph's views from the 1940s.

In the speech his son is saying the opposite. But then you accuse, or imply, that Miliband is actually a small-minded person when you say we are in fact a country "which does not recognise itself in the besieged caricature of Ed and Dave's Little Britain".

However, Miliband opens his speech saying "The Britain I believe in is a confident and optimistic country, not one which is insecure and inward looking. If people are looking for a politician who says immigration is just bad for Britain, that's not me." This is the opposite of a besieged Little Britainism.

Are you saying that the English are very nationalist and Miliband is refusing to confront this and is an evasive cosmopolitan? Or are you saying that he is, despite what he says, a Little Briton, a besieged figure while the country is expansive and tolerant?


Simon Parker

Dear Anthony,

Many thanks for your detailed and considerate reply to the Miliband and immigration piece. I don't think the speech is vacuous but I cannot agree that it is “surprisingly coherent”.

Yes, there are several points where Miliband stresses the benefits of immigration but these are grace notes in an overture that has a much darker theme:

- we let too many immigrants in

- we allowed local communities to be overwhelmed by foreigners

- we allowed immigrants to depress wages and take jobs

- we called people who complained about these things bigots when we should really have said that we share their concerns

- we can't turn the immigration tap off due to globalisation etc - so no 'British Jobs for British Workers' - but let's at least try to ensure *less* foreign workers for British employers.

We clearly disagree about the likely impact that Miliband's proposed changes to minimum wage regulation will make to the low paid—which should in any case not be conflated with labour migration unless one takes the Migration Watch line. We of course used to have perfectly good institutions to do this. They were called Wages Councils but they were abolished, except in agriculture, by the Tories in 1993 and although the Labour Party had ample opportunity to bring them back in over 12 years of government they never did.

Which takes me to your apparent acceptance that Miliband is something other than a creature of New Labour. The 'this has nothing to do with me Guv' hand-washing on the deregulation of the British labour force and the neoliberalisation of its public services is entirely unconvincing. Yes, Miliband was a parliamentary latecomer, but during the whole of Brown's tenure at the Treasury, Ed was Brown's chief economic and political advisor and he played a major role in drafting the Labour Party manifestos, especially the last one. I should have put this in the piece because it nicely highlights a continuity between 'New Labour regime Ed' and 'post New Labour Ed' which the latter is desperately keen to deny.

In the 2010 Manifesto Miliband wrote “We understand people's concerns about immigration—about whether it will undermine their wages or job prospects, or put pressure on public services or housing—and we have acted. Asylum claims are down to the levels of the early 1990s and net inward immigration has fallen. We will use our new Australian-style points system to ensure that as growth returns we see rising employment and wages, not rising immigration—but we reject the arbitrary and unworkable Tory quota”.

Spot the difference between this and his IPPR speech this June? I must say I can't – except that rather tellingly the header for this section of the manifesto reads “Crime and Immigration”. Perhaps that will be the title of another speech on a subject Miliband has promised to return to.

In your reply you quote the follow section of the IPPR speech:

“we were too dazzled by globalisation and too sanguine about its price. By focusing too much on globalization and migration's impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – and the people who were being squeezed. And, to those who lost out, Labour was too quick to say 'like it or lump it' ... immigration in the last few years collided with a labour market that is too often nasty, brutish and short term.”

This section of the speech is another good example of what I'm talking about. Is this a mea culpa or a jibe at Brown – and if the latter, again, who was advising Brown during the heyday of globalised UK growth? Again Ed tries to distinguish, in an interestingly Kleinian way, between the good 'responsible capitalist' breast and that of the bad 'irresponsible capitalist' when actually, as some of us learn when we grow up, they belong to the same mother.

So he reassures the North London dinner party set that they can keep their Swedish 'nannies' and their Polish builders because exploited migrant labour is essentially a problem for those who worry about immigration in places like Doncaster North and Rochdale.

There is one message for the cosmopolitan liberal elites who rather like and indeed benefit from labour migration and cultural diversity - the class to which Ed and David belong - and there is another for the voters of Doncaster North and 'the squeezed middle' which says rather the opposite. “England first” as Ralph Miliband wrote. This is what I meant by Ed and post New Labour's bipolar disorder—or in old parlance schizoid character.

The issue I have with this though, is not that we shouldn't tackle minimum wage evasion and improve the job prospects of those who don't have the education, skills or personal qualities to find any sort of employment. My question is why conflate this with immigration when a) you have admitted that there is nothing to be done anyway, b) even if every foreign born worker was sent back to their country of birth to tomorrow it won't tackle the unemployability problem which has very little to do with an unwillingness to work for minimum or sub-minimum wage.

In defence of Gordon Brown, at least he tried to explain to Mrs Duffy that as many people from Britain had migrated to other parts of the EU as were living here. However inept, there was an attempt to challenge commonplace prejudices with some real factual counter evidence.

Under Miliband that impulse – that dare I say Old Labour instinct – has entirely gone. My main intention in writing the article was to challenge Ed for saying it is no longer acceptable to call bigoted attitudes on race, immigration and cultural diversity bigoted. This is an exercise in ideological closure that you do not need to have read Derrida to understand. It is also, in my view and I hope some of the readers of Our Kingdom and openDemocracy, a dangerous exercise that needs to be challenged and opposed.


Anthony Barnett

Dear Simon,

My point about the IPPR immigration speech’s coherence was that I expected something vacuous and found that Miliband’s argument against treating immigrants as cheap, disposable labour fitted into his positioning as favouring responsible or better capitalism as against rapacious capitalism. Personally, I'd be much more interested if he made his ambition how to create a better socialism, or at least a better social democracy. Now that would be interesting! Nor am I convinced that he is the man to reform capitalism. But he took a line of approach and this speech fitted into it, building on and reinforcing his 'message'. In this sense it was coherent and this surprised me.

Your language in places troubles me. "Grace notes" suggests that you regard everything he says that is positive about immigration as made in bad faith while the word "overture" suggests you think he is in fact conducting a generalised attack on immigrants. But capitalism demands immigration and he is the leader of the Labour Party which is full of immigrants. He can't attack them even if he wanted to. It seems to me that the problem he is trying to solve is the problem he says he is trying to solve: namely, how to win over working class voters, traditional Labour voters who know that the Party is not going to stop immigration. His answer is that Labour must address their fears honestly.

I'm not going to 'defend' him. The question is, are any of these statements dishonest, and if so, how dishonest?

Are you saying, as you seem to be, that we should let many more immigrants in, that this will have no distressing effects on local communities, that it won't depress wages or take jobs and that anyone who complains is a racist bigot? Surely in agricultural labour, warehousing and building for example, non-unionised immigrant labour depresses wages – isn't that the point? Can't someone who is not a bigot complain about this?

I am not predicting any impact of Miliband’s verbal attack on low wages. My point is simply that this makes sense in terms of his presentation. There is a real question of politicians' commitments meaning nothing. He should make an issue of this and demonstrate how his commitments are clear and will be delivered, such as stopping people being paid below the legal minimum. But until he makes an irreversible noise I'll join you on the sceptical seating.

Ed is a product of New Labour. Of course. He was also the only leadership candidate who said the Iraq war was wrong. He emphasised this in his acceptance speech to the fury of his brother. This means he is not just "nothing other than the creature of New Labour". Which is why the Blairites tried to get rid of him until he brought down Murdoch - something no pure New Labourite would have done. It seems to me that he does not deny his part in the Blair/Brown regime or say it has nothing to do with him. I wish he'd make much more of a split from it and it is appalling that he is seeing Blair who is profoundly unpopular in the country. He is not "desperately keen to deny" continuity but he also says he wants to be different in relationship to neo-liberalism. Saying he is just the same as the rest of them is no good. What is interesting is the nature of the differences and whether there is there a moral grounding or principle to any differences - will they be dynamic and open up a new direction, or are they cosmetic and likely to lead to repetition?

Your response to my quote from the speech clearly expresses our differences and where our arguments might converge. You ask rhetorically “is this a jibe at Brown?" which allows you to ignore that indeed it is. You deny his attempt to be different, and then ask, "who was advising him"? So not only has he not really changed his mind, it's just a "jibe", he can't change his mind because he is what he was. All of which means you can't hear what he is trying to say to the voters.

Your Kleinian point is serious. Is the distinction he is attempting to draw between a long-term responsible investing capitalism and a short-term, predatory speculative capitalism, garbage? Is the love-hatred we naturally feel towards our mother being projected onto the beastly provider that has built the wealth and culture of our singular world? Is it possible to have a regulated capitalism with full-employment, no one earning less than a living wage, and universal health and education services? If not, what is to replace it? The question for Miliband becomes: is it credible to offer significant improvements on the capitalism we have?

His speech is cleverer than I realised! The job description of a political leader is to address 'the nation' while appealing to different classes, regions and interests that might oppose each other. It is not a rational occupation. But are not you being inconsistent too? Are you saying immigration that helps the middle class elite is bad while that which makes voters worry up north is good?

I'm not attempting to defend his speech. But it seems to me part of his argument is that what is being expressed in racism and prejudice against immigrants are concerns about housing and employment, poor education and the speed of change. If so, you have to address these if you want to confront the racism.

What Duffy said afterwards was that she objected less to being called a "bigot" than the fact that Brown referred to her as "that woman."

Why do you say the Old Labour instinct has entirely gone? In the public argument Brown had, he recognised Gillian Duffy’s concerns as legitimate and sought to respond; isn't this exactly what Miliband is doing?

Where does Ed say “it is no longer acceptable to call bigoted attitudes on race, immigration and cultural diversity bigoted”? It is indeed terrifically important if he is refusing us the right to denounce bigotry and racism. I have not read anything by him that suggests he thinks the English Defence League or the British National Party are expressing acceptable concerns. They are a common enemy. Perhaps over-generously I read him as saying that while there are racists who oppose immigrants, not everyone who opposes more immigration is a racist.

I want to make one last point about your quote from Ralph Miliband's diary. The assumption is that England has not changed and is still the country it was 70 years ago, in its attitudes, its nationalism and its racism. I don't think so. I think there has been a huge, positive change towards multi-racialism and multi-culturalism and this is now a different country in this respect. Even though the political and constitutional system has not changed and is deeply inscribed with imperial insignia, supremicism and prejudice, the country mostly is not. Indeed, I'd argue that for peculiar reasons it is no longer patriotic to be fascist in England. You can't say this of France, Germany, Italy or obviously Spain, as yet, where everyone fears a fascist claim upon country and flag. I am not saying that English patriotism is necessarily democratic! But this is another discussion.


Simon Parker

Dear Anthony,

Your last set of comments are very helpful in both defining the common ground that exists between us and highlighting where differences still remain on the question of ‘post’ New Labour and immigration.

Let me briefly address each of them in turn before addressing the wider ‘English/British question’ at the end.

You are right to point out that there are aspects of the speech where Miliband does express a concern about the exploitation of foreign workers—he mentions the Morecambe Bay Chinese cockle pickers tragedy, for example, and the previous Labour government’s introduction of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (though he missed a trick in pointing out that the Cameron-commissioned Beeson report called for its abolition). But the speech is very ambiguous about whether ‘responsible capitalism’ should take a position on levels of migration. If Miliband is saying that the responsible capitalist is an employer who agrees to pay a living wage, invests in employee skills and training and has a strong local attachment to the community—very few people would disagree. But despite denying the speech is embracing a ‘British jobs for British workers’ approach—Miliband does seem to be suggesting that it is irresponsible of companies to hire foreign workers particularly where there are concentrated pockets of unemployment in certain parts of the UK.

Despite providing no evidence that foreign migrants are displacing British born workers, Miliband makes the claim that

“Where there are sectors in which the migrant share of the workforce has dramatically increased, it can be a sign that we haven't done enough to equip young people with the skills they need to compete.”

But we don’t need to use migrant labour participation rates as a sign of poor levels of skills and education because as Danny Dorling and colleagues have shown, the long-term data analysis reveals a consistent social geography of poverty and non-employment that considerably predates the “dramatic increase” in the migrant workforce (See ‘Poverty and Place in Britain, 1968-99’). What Miliband ought to have said is that in many parts of the UK it is often migrant entrepreneurs and business owners who are providing the few opportunities for youth employment at a time when traditional mass employment sectors such as construction and manufacturing are contracting.

Let me try and condense the remaining responses to your other comments.

Is the speech an attack on immigration? You say it isn’t because of the Labour Party’s composition, Ed Miliband’s own family history etc. I think the more positive noises in the speech are ‘grace notes’ precisely for the same reason. Miliband is talking to two constituencies simultaneously, a metropolitan liberal cosmopolitan one and the much larger public that comprises Labour-oriented white working class voters plus Miliband’s ‘squeezed middle’—those on low or middle income who are affected by inflation, wage freezes and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty.

This is why the speech is so replete with contradictory messages. But the dominant message for me, and certainly in terms of the way the speech was reported, relates to Ed’s re-calibration of the political debate around a national defensive populism which although coming from a different direction is convergent with David Cameron’s infamous denunciation of ‘state multiculturalism’ at the Munich Security Conference in February 2011.

The major difference between my position and the one you articulate in your most recent comment, which despite your denial does sound to me like a defence of Ed Miliband’s argument, is when you refer to the “distressing” effects of immigration on local communities — inviting me to contradict your claim that immigration “won’t depress wages or take jobs and that anyone who complains is a racist bigot we should attack as such”.

The Compas study that I cited in my original article should have dealt with this claim that both you and Miliband appear to make. Yes, there can be negative effects on vulnerable local labour markets as a consequence of inward labour migration but this will tend to be at the bottom of the employment pyramid where the work is low paid, unskilled, seasonal, unpleasant and anti-social. I should have also pointed out that if one were to attempt to reverse these alleged negative effects on local jobs and wages by removing the foreign born workforce from Britain, not only would calling a minicab, catching a bus or finding a take-away in most cities be practically impossible—most NHS operations would have to be cancelled, many residential care homes would have to be shut down, and schools, factories, public buildings, offices and streets would remain uncleaned and unguarded.

When I said that Miliband is “seeking to reassure the North London dinner party set that they can keep their Swedish 'nannies' and their Polish builders because exploited migrant labour is essentially a problem for those who worry about immigration in places like Doncaster North and Rochdale”, I wasn’t at all suggesting that “immigration that helps the middle class elite is bad while that which makes voters worry up north is good”.  I am sure we both agree on the need to ensure everyone employed in the UK has a contract of employment that provides the same basic protections, minimum level of salary and rights regardless of national origin wherever they live and work.

Since I think migration is good for both Primrose Hill and Rochdale I can’t identify with the ‘we’ that is invited to end further immigration, and not only because as Mrs Duffy observes “there is nothing we can do about it”. So when you say, “while there are racists who oppose immigrants not everyone who opposes more immigration is a racist”, that may be true, but the consequence of saying that Labour was too inattentive to migration fears in office, as Shamit Saggar has pointed out, “will only incentivise Conservative right-wingers to exploit immigration as an electoral issue in the second half of the parliament”.

In this vein, Miliband talks about “secure borders” as the last fetishistic relic of the denuded nation state. As you point out capitalism requires open markets and that includes labour markets. But throughout the world, citizenship has become a conditional and restricted category which sovereign states wield in an increasingly desperate attempt to restore their popular legitimacy in the face of globalising neoliberalism.

Therefore I think the situation from a public policy perspective is a good deal worse than in 1940 when, other than the obstacles of wartime transportation, there were no legal barriers to the entry of potentially 600 million Empire subjects to the mother country.  One can argue about the United States being a more racist country than the United Kingdom, but despite the shameful attack on the basic rights of Latino and Hispanic residents in Arizona which the Supreme Court has mostly repealed, it was a black President of the United States who promised to offer a path of citizenship to the thousands of undocumented migrant children who, as Obama insisted, have the right to call themselves Americans (a gesture that prompted Obama’s presidential rival Mitt Romney to ‘out nice’ the Democrats by promising to go even further in regularising long-term undocumented migrant US residents). There are many thousands of children in the UK whose lives are similarly in limbo through no fault of their own and to whom Miliband, like Obama, could have stretched out his hand. But their concerns and their worries seem not be on the Leader of the Opposition’s agenda.

At the same time, as you rightly point out, it is important to insist that from a social and cultural perspective the majority of the British public is far more tolerant and comfortable with the practical realities of multiculturalism than Tebbit and Cameron will ever admit.

As Max Weber remarked in his lecture, ‘Politics as a Vocation’ over a century ago

“it is immensely moving when a mature man—no matter whether old or young in years—is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. In so far as this is true, an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements) which only in unison constitute a genuine man—a man who can have the 'calling for politics.'”

This is why Miliband ought to be taking a stand in celebrating diversity as a source of strength and pride rather than as a pretext for diversionary arguments surrounding an economic crisis, the cause of which is to be found in the structural contradictions of unconstrained self-regulating markets, not the movement of labour within and across an increasingly irrelevant and archaic configuration of national borders.


Anthony Barnett

Dear Simon,

Five issues are posed by this exchange:

  1. What should we think about immigration, especially given the way it is exploited as an ‘issue’ by racists and xenophobes?
  2. Have the English-British lost their racist attitudes in any fundamental way over the last seventy years?
  3. What is Labour’s current policy in this area given Ed Miliband’s speech at the start of the summer?
  4. How should the Labour leader’s policy be assessed and criticised?
  5. What is the future of the nation and national politics in the 21st century?

The exchange between us began over the fourth issue: I was concerned with the way you criticised Ed Miliband’s speech. Having read your article, submitted to us for publication, I pushed it back at you over what I felt was a mistaken tone, a kind of knowing cynicism that undermined the credibility of your critique. My rapid response was an editorial one not written for publication. OurKingdom runs a very relaxed policy with different voices, attitudes and qualities in what we publish. I may have over-reacted in that I am writing about Miliband’s politics myself, on the closely related issue of Englishness. I wasn’t against publishing what you wrote but I questioned it. This has grown into a multi-part exchange for publication. Your last response with its more definitive conclusions forces me to address the other issues as well, directly. But I also want to return to my original concern with how those on the left should engage with Labour policy if we are going to write about it as activists, working to influence what is happening here.

First, immigration.

I am in favour of People Flow. That is to say I support replacing the term ‘immigration’ with ‘people flow’ and I want to see our politicians embrace the reality of the international movement or flow of people, with all our different beliefs and cultures, in positive terms. I back the approach set out in the Demos/openDemocracy People Flow debate of 2003, which argued that the movement of people should be “managed not controlled”. The debate originated with the work of Theo Veenkamp who was a senior civil servant in the Dutch administration. It was then edited by Tom Bently at Demos and by Rosemary Bechler at oD.

Veenkamp argued that politics would be poisoned by toxic prejudices unless the positive energy of immigration was embraced and people smuggling, criminality, absurd rules preventing asylum seekers from working, failure to ensure that incomers earn their claim on welfare, and other issues were not addressed. He argued back in 2003 that it was the right time for this argument, in a period of economic strength and confidence in Europe. The debate that followed was massive and far-ranging, including even a contribution from here in the UK by the ex-Home Secretary David Blunkett. Veenkamp’s far-sighted warning and Bentley’s work to promote it was ignored.

Their approach was embedded in making existing realities legal, workable and more productive, organised around a Copernican assertion: that immigration is not an exceptional, external interruption into normally existing society. The norm is people flow. The movement of people within and across societies is ordinary and cannot be stopped. It is what we are. They identified an evident truth and in doing so attempted to turn the preconceptions of political rhetoric upside down.

What I mean by this analogy is that Copernicus realised that the sun did not go round the earth but that the earth circles the sun. People Flow sees that we, the people, do not exist in permanent political communities that immigrants come into or leave. On the contrary, our communities – nations, regions, cities, villages and local networks – are forms of movement, they are liquid not solid and herein lies their true humanity. We should embrace and manage this, not defy it.

If Miliband was influenced by any approach it was a different one – that of Blue Labour (see the debate on OurKingdom), which seeks to reach out to the conservatism of Mrs Duffy. A central part of Blue Labour’s critique of New Labour is its opposition to the commoditisation of people by corporate interests endorsed by Blair when he was Prime Minister. Against this Blue Labour emphasise the capitalist inhumanity of mass migration that dissolves community and turns residents as well as incomers into units of labour.  There is a truth to this argument, which Ed picks up on. But at the same time communities of fate can also be forms of inhumanity, while the freedom to move and the need to be open to the other is profoundly human, even if Blair traded on this rhetoric to benefit his corporate friends.

I am still not clear where you stand on the basic issue of open borders. It seems that you want all borders to be open with no restrictions on the movement and settlement of people, not at some time in the future as many of us would, but now. Obviously you could not get democratic support for this in our existing political community. The question then is, is everybody who opposes opening borders racist and bigoted?

On the other hand, if you agree that there have to be some controls, as I do and as the original People Flow approach supports, you can’t deny the legitimacy of debate over what such controls should be and how they should deal with cheating.

You suggest that Miliband is exploiting such issues because he is pandering to prejudice that he should be confronting. But if you are going to accuse him of being confusing and contradictory you need to be clear about whether they are legitimate issues at all, if only in the mouths of others.

Second: have the British changed?

Have the British changed since the 1940s? There is lots of intolerable racism and prejudice around, but the British have changed a great deal. The country may be much more openly capitalist and individualist and outspoken and less corporatist, deferential and collectivist, and this has not proved good news for socialism. But in terms of the acceptance of people from other backgrounds as being British, the political and elite classes who are the most deeply prejudiced, have been obliged to concede that their policies of divide and rule on ethnic grounds have largely failed. There is an English question here, which is another matter, but most people in England see themselves as British and now oppose racist prejudice as part of this self-perception. This is a big change.

I don’t think you have answered my unease at your use of the expression of frustration in a father’s diary against the son. Trying to show that the US is less bigoted than the UK does not address this and we can leave the point. But being clear about whether things are changing in the UK or not  is still necessary if you are to condemn Ed’s approach. You say that the Labour leader’s “conceit” is to assume that if economic and social conditions improve bigotry will “subside and eventually disappear”, whereas his father understood that, “The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world...”. I thought you didn’t mean what this implies: that the English are still just as rabid people, and their prejudice will not be assuaged by material improvement. Clearly, if this is what you are claiming and the claim is accurate, the duty of any democratic party leader must be to confront the rabid mentality of voters whatever the electoral costs.

You reply that “the situation from a public policy perspective is a good deal worse than in 1940” because then all Commonwealth citizens had an unrestricted right of entry, even if it was logistically impossible for them to exercise this right. But we are talking about popular prejudice and whether it is still rabid, not public policy. You add as a welcome fact that the public is “far more tolerant” and “more comfortable” with multiculturalism “than… Cameron would admit”. However, it seems to me that this is the premise of Miliband’s approach that you denounce as a  “conceit”.

Three: Miliband’s policy

What is Ed’s policy? On reflection I agree with you that he was playing with prejudice by saying that Labour ‘understood’ the concerns of the Mrs Duffys and that this runs the risk of legitimising the BNP and the EDL rather than undermining them by stealing their clothes.

But he is trying to build a coherent strategy calling for “responsible” capitalism that Labour will introduce under his leadership. Whether he is a plausible leader of such parliamentary capitalism is another matter. I won’t repeat my argument about why I don’t see it as a break from past Labour policy and the launch of a new one opposing immigrants and immigration. I have to respond to you when you write of my view, “Is the speech an attack on immigration? You say it isn’t because of the Labour Party’s composition, Miliband’s own family history etc.” But I never said his policy is in any way determined by his family history, not least because immigrants can be notoriously prejudiced. I simply pointed out that Labour can’t develop a policy of attacking immigrants (not immigration) as it has a significant number of members and supporters who vote for it because they see it as the party that does most to protect immigrants.

Some of Ed’s close supporters have insisted to me that he is at the start of a journey. The parliamentary party is much more Blairite and opposes him. He must be judged as someone on a learning curve. But I think you are probably right that he is seeking to articulate a “national defensive populism” (in contrast to the Blair’s corporate, manipulative populism I denounced in 1999). Doubtless he sees himself fighting an election in the depths of an economic crisis when the pollsters tell him voters want reassurance. The pity of it is that there is a hunger for an energetic fight-back, which, if Ed does nothing to respond to, will turn towards Boris Johnson if it has not done so already.   

Four: how to assess a leader’s speech

How should we go about criticising a speech like Miliband’s on immigration? It’s important for the left in particular not to be holier than thou, given the massive, historic defeat we have been responsible for (so far, I would add). Also, the role of any leader is not to be logical, it is to bring together as wide an alliance of supporters as possible, including people who disagree with each other but look for hope in that leader. To pull this off is not contradictory, it is politics. We therefore need to ask what politicians are doing and where they are heading.

You do exactly this when you analyse Ed’s strategy as “national defensive populism” and this illuminates. You don’t do it when you presume to know that his praise for immigration is made in bad faith while the tolerance he extends to understanding the causes of prejudice is the overture to his dark real agenda.

He is a young and ill-prepared leader who got where he was because he was the only contender to show any significant commitment to changing from New Labour. He is also thoughtful, has an exceptional experience of witnessing how government works, and faces the most profound economic crisis since the 1930s. It’s silly to insist that he is just the same as his predecessors in quite different circumstances. 

Five: the future of the nation

Does the nation state with its borders have a future? You say not, claiming borders to be “increasingly irrelevant and archaic”. Here we fundamentally disagree. Indeed, your language is close to that of Blair and other advocates of neo-liberal globalisation as they fly across borders in first class comfort. Globalisation is creating different kinds of relevance for nations, states and the borders between them – not their irrelevance.

The most advanced and promising multi-national experiment ever seen, the European Union, is surely an object lesson. It is creating more intense national differences by the minute. The tragic reason is surely that its architects saw nations and borders as petty obstacles to progress - and democracy and referendums as threatening forms of backwardness and populism. Democracy, the liberty and equality of self-government, in an epoch of increasing flow and change depends upon national forms of expression.

The hollowing out of the state by marketisation is not a sign of the irrelevance of the nation but of its enduring importance as perhaps the only instrument able to counter global corporate interests. This is why if we are to have egalitarian policies and a more open political culture in Britain we need a much more democratic constitution, because in its present form it is arbitrary, unaccountable and unrepresentative – conveniently so, of course, for the vested interests that seek to influence it.

We need distinct and defined body politics and therefore borders, if of a different kind to the 20th century, for the differences nations represent are not “increasingly irrelevant and archaic” – on the contrary. In the era of globalisation they need to be re-imagined and reorganised as plural, open societies, but they retain their place as the main (but not the sole) starting point of politics, not least when it comes to people flow.


Simon Parker

Dear Anthony,

I’d like to start by circling your five points with the fiery rings of Danny Boyle’s spectacular portrayal of British history in the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony. From green and pleasant land to dark satanic mills to the tragedy of war, women’s suffrage, and the triumph of a post-war welfare state. Each of these achievements was built with the help of ‘outsiders’—from the islands of Britain and Ireland, from mainland Europe and more recently from the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. “Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises,” declares Caliban in The Tempest—London 2012’s inspired and inspiring imagined community—a place of “Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not…”

Over the course of the summer, even Conservative political commentators felt obliged to condemn Tory MP Aidan Burley’s description of the opening ceremony as ‘leftist multicultural crap’, and we witnessed a palpable shift in the national popular away from the defensive vision espoused by Ed Miliband in June to a much more inclusive and unapologetic celebration of diverse Britain; a mood which thanks to the Paralympic Games, as Lord Coe rightly observed, has changed not just the public perception of disabled athletes but of disabled people in general.

Having opportunistically rolled out the No.10 red carpet to Mo Farah, a Somali Muslim asylum seeker who learned to run in a comprehensive school in Sheffield, would David Cameron have made exactly the same speech that he gave to the Munich Security conference about state sponsored multiculturalism having failed? One suspects not.

Would Ed Miliband have been so ready to align himself with the concerns of Mrs Duffy over migration given that without it Great Britain would have lost one third of its Olympic team and even more of its medals?

Again one would hope not.

But sadly, as the camaraderie and internationalism of the Olympic summer of 2012 fades into memory—the monotonous drone of migrant bashing once more fills the national eardrums.

Migration Watch’s Sir Andrew Green has managed to persuade over 144,000 people to sign an e-petition, thus sparking a parliamentary debate calling for more drastic action to be taken in order to reduce immigration lest Britain becomes swollen by foreign bodies to a population in excess of 70 million. Of course the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants careful demolition of MW’s spurious data and dodgy projections cut no ice with the Home Secretary who has been only too thrilled to wield the visa axe on 2,000 innocent and unsuspecting overseas students from London Metropolitan University. Victims of an absurd audit policing that if the same scrutiny were to be applied to the UK Border Agency itself, as countless Parliamentary Committees have testified, would have resulted in the UKBA’s own visa issuing powers being removed. In a further attack on the right to family life, from July, marriage to a non-EU citizen is denied to everyone on or below the average income of all but two of the UK’s regions—a vicious economic apartheid that can only now be stopped by successful court challenges.

So should Labour, and in particular Ed Miliband, return to the ‘business as usual’ debate on immigration?

Let me reply by way of the five points you raise in your last response.

‘People Flow’. This term certainly has a less prejudicial connotation than immigration, but just as with the attempt to rebrand ‘asylum seeking’ as ‘seeking sanctuary’ it is impossible to destigmatise a despised group lexically. I absolutely agree with you when you say that ‘immigration is not an exceptional, external interruption into normally existing society. The norm is 'people flow’. You then write, "our communities: nations, regions, cities, villages and local networks are forms of movement, they are liquid not solid and herein lies their true humanity. We should embrace and manage this, not defy it". That is precisely right, but I would want to see management of such movements not in terms of control which inevitably means the state acting as a racist, sexist, classist, homophobic gatekeeper, but manage as in respond to the social and economic consequences and needs of population movement on a planetary level rather than through the outmoded and illogical mechanism of the nation-state. I will return to the subject of ‘open borders’ and the nation in my response to point five.

‘Blue Labour’ strikes me as being no less of an oxymoron than ‘responsible capitalism’ or ‘caring Conservatism’.  Its leading ideologue, Maurice Glasman, seems to believe like UKIP that we should re-negotiate the EU treaties allowing free movement of labour and halt immigration from the rest of the world. I fail to see where the progressive or ‘Labour’ element is in this, though it is certainly a position that would find favour with many Conservative MPs and voters.

No I don’t think that everyone who believes in some form of immigration or border control is a bigot or a racist, though it is almost always the case that bigots and racists are strongly in favour of maximum immigration controls (ideally zero) and even the forcible removal of those who they consider to be ethnically, culturally, or religiously different to themselves. The problem, as Enoch Powell argued, is that immigration is not and has never been primarily a question of numbers (he notoriously never counted the immigrants from the Old Commonwealth), it is about who and what we want to be as a country. Those who oppose migration will continue to oppose it even if the economic benefits can be clearly demonstrated and the overall population remains stable because most anti-migrant voters see immigration as an attack on their cultural and national identity and that prejudice extends to second, third and fourth generation immigrant communities.

Have the British changed? I think you are right to say that “in terms of the acceptance of people from other backgrounds as being British, the political and elite classes who are the most deeply prejudiced have been obliged to concede that their policies of divide and rule on ethnic grounds have largely failed”. The British public, which itself has become more ethnically diverse since the 1960s, has become more accepting of ethnic, cultural and religious difference. But we must be cautious of assuming that in tough economic times that hard-won tolerance is something on which liberalism and progressive politics can rely. Although the BNP lost six council seats in the local elections in May, as Daniel Trilling points out, in the 2010 general election the BNP’s vote actually went up to 563,331. It is quite possible that UKIP will emerge as the largest party in the forthcoming European elections and this will harden the determination of anti-European MPs in the Conservative Party to push for a referendum on withdrawal from the EU. If that were to happen it is Enoch Powell’s vision of Britain rather than Harold Wilson and Edward Heath’s that is likely to triumph, and that would surely be a disastrous and retrograde step for the prospects of an inclusive and cosmopolitan Britain.

Since Ed Miliband sought to legitimise his speech by reference to an immigrant father who still commands wide respect on the left as a radical intellectual I think it is entirely legitimate to draw attention to Ralph Miliband’s views on the British and English nationalism. Unfortunately the kind of rabid nationalism that Ralph Miliband complained about in the 1940s is still present in large parts of the media, in the political establishment and among a significant section of British society. Yes I do think, as you say, that “the duty of any democratic party leader must be to confront the rabid mentality of voters whatever the electoral costs”—hence my disappointment at Ed Miliband’s willingness to appease rather than to confront and challenge such views.

Miliband’s policy. Thank you for acknowledging that Ed was “playing with prejudice by saying that Labour ‘understood’ the concerns of the Mrs Duffys” and for accepting that such statements serve to legitimise the views of the far right rather than persuading voters to support anti-racist parties, which let us hope the Labour Party still thinks itself to be. It is hard not to see Miliband’s speech as an attack on immigration—especially given the way that it was spun to the popular press—and because he promised to put in place new regulations and restrictions that would in effect favour British born workers.  There is a real risk that defensive national populism will force Labour to fight the next election on precisely the sort of chauvinist, anti-European ground that would favour Boris Johnson and the new breed Tory right. It is a fight that Labour cannot win because the Tories will always be more credible as the nasty party on immigration. Ed would be far better off plugging away at the coalition’s disastrous economic policy and denouncing its vicious revanchist war on the poor (especially poor women), the elderly, the disabled and ordinary working families.

Assessing a leader’s speech. My reason for offering a critical response to Ed Miliband’s speech was not to be ‘holier than thou’ but rather to challenge the often gushing endorsements that I read from even left-of centre commentators whose writing I generally admire, such as John Harris. It was also an attempt to argue that Ed does not have to cling to fearful, concerned Britain as his political touchstone. The Olympics have shown that there is a popular pride in diversity and our migrant history that can be channelled towards a more positive and inclusive sense of what it means to be British and to work, study or take refuge here.

As you say, Ed has “exceptional experience of witnessing how government works”, not least because he was so central to its economic policy-making team. Politics may not be logical but it shouldn’t induce a sense of collective amnesia when it comes to the responsibility of political leaders for their past involvement in what was a Murdoch-craven, corporate capitalist worshipping, international law breaking cabal. I am not accusing Miliband of bad faith when he praises some of the positive aspects of immigration, but simply observing that the speech was an interesting example of the bipolar disorder that appears to require a pro-migrant narrative for progressive middle class voters and a ‘sharing of concern’ for those mostly working class voters who see few or no positives from immigration.

The future of the nation. Unlike Tony Blair I have not done much first class flying across national borders, but I must take issue with the suggestion that those like me who are critical of national states and hope for their eventual demise are somehow ‘advocates of neo-liberal globalisation’. Such a characterisation couldn’t be further from the truth. Nation-states are the architects and engines of neoliberal globalisation not its victims.

So your point about Europe is a good one, but I would see the faltering of the European integration experiment not as a consequence of the exertion of too little national sovereignty, but rather that there has been far too much of it. Especially since the introduction of the Euro and the increasing dominance of the Federal Republic of Germany over European monetary policy and the European debt crisis which is literally stripping Greece (and arguably Italy, Spain and Ireland) of its sovereignty.

You say that “Democracy, the liberty and equality of self-government, in an epoch of increasing flow and change depends upon national forms of expression”. But history shows that nationalism also fuels racism, xenophobia and bigotry. I’ve just returned from a conference in Cyprus—where many hundreds of families still do not know where their missing loved ones are buried decades on from the brutal civil war that also witnessed members of the same community and even household murdered in the cause of ‘national unity’. During the recent occupation of the buffer zone in Nicosia in protest at the continued division of the island by the military and in solidarity with the global ‘Occupy’ movement, a graffitied slogan on one of the squatted buildings read: ‘nationalism is the ideology of death’. We do not need to look too far back in history or too far afield today to recall the genocidal horror of nationalist and colonialist wars.

A desire to prevent any further slaughter between Europe’s warring national states underpinned Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman’s aspiration to build a new community of nations in Europe founded on the principles of peaceful cooperation. The free movement of labour in the European Union should therefore be celebrated not least because prejudice and chauvinism are best countered by the direct experience of other cultures and countries. If one wishes to maintain strong national borders, one has to accept the need for border guards, biometric surveillance, detention camps and immigration prisons, which has made the global state security industry such a very profitable experience for its investors and such a miserable one for its victims.

I cannot imagine an open, plural society that would devote its energy and resources to such a relentless and often tragic control of its borders. However, like the late Sir Michael Dummett I can envisage some rare situations in which one could justify restrictions on population flow in order to prevent the deliberate minoritisation of an existing population (such as in Tibet by the Han Chinese, or Fiji where the British settled more Indians at one point than existed among the indigenous population, or in the Occupied Palestinian Territories). The other would be over-population where the level of natural resources is simply insufficient to sustain life (or a decent quality of life). But before embarking on such Malthusian meditations it is worth remarking that no Western European country is close to being genuinely ‘over populated’, that Britain is only the 39th most populated country in the world and that even a rise to 70 million would put Britain in 31st place with considerably more living space than the Dutch currently enjoy.

Clearly we are a long way from a Labour leadership that would even begin to make such a case, but like so many apparently unpopular and impossible demands in previous episodes of Britain’s political history, from the abolition of slavery to votes for women, no great reform was ever achieved by taking the settled view of the majority as its starting point.

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