You know how it is

I want Labour to win this election, but they’re not exactly going all out for my vote at the moment. I learned this morning, courtesy of Obsolete, that Labour stand for sending people to prison for possession of drugs for personal use – at least, they attack the Lib Dems for not supporting this policy. I wouldn’t say it’s having the opposite of the intended effect: never mind a nose peg, you’d have to stuff my nose with garlic, coat my eyes with butter and fill my ears with silver (and the rest) to make me vote Lib Dem. But Labour certainly aren’t calling me home.

This, of course, comes on top of That Mug. Now, being a pedant to my bones – and having worked for a publishing and events company – my immediate reaction to this story was to point out tetchily that it wasn’t a matter of one mug; we were talking about Those Mugs plural, which is to say That Marketing Strategy for Those Pledges plural. But, if anything, this makes matters even worse for Labour: if “why that mug?” was a good question, “why that pledge?” is an even better one. If the Labour Party, going into an election it needs to win, wants to highlight five pledges – five commitments encapsulating what the party will do in government – why on earth should one of them be ‘Controls on immigration’? (Particularly since our membership of the EU makes controlling EU immigration extremely problematic, as everyone involved knows perfectly well.)

Paul Bernal has an excellent list of alternative pledges. Any one of them would be an improvement; in fact, I think Paul’s pledges 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 would make good replacements for all five of Labour’s. An interesting discussion of the ‘immigration’ pledge itself – and its importance to the voters – has also developed in the comments box. Since I’m one of the main participants, I’ll continue it over here. It began with a comment on the salience – and relative visibility (or at least audibility) – of Eastern European migrants, as distinct from those who have come to Britain from the New Commonwealth. (And with whom UKIP, and others playing the migration card, are of course absolutely fine; the new anti-migration politics is not racist in any way, shape or form. Mostly.) Here’s the comment:

One other point, white migrants from Eastern Europe locally stand out because they are white and quite often not speaking English amongst themselves. We are used to people of non white descent speaking languages other than English to the point where it goes almost unnoticed and unremarked.

In response, I pulled out this quote from the papers in 2010, when Thatcher’s 1979 obiter dicta in Cabinet became available under the 30-year rule.

[In July 1979, the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] said that “with some exceptions there had been no humanitarian case for accepting 1.5 million immigrants from south Asia and elsewhere. It was essential to draw a line somewhere”. [Deputy Prime Minister] Mr Whitelaw entered the debate, suggesting to the prime minister that refugees were a different matter to immigrants in general. He said that according to letters he had received, opinion favoured the accepting of more of the Vietnamese refugees. Lady Thatcher responded that “in her view all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes” … “She thought it quite wrong that immigrants should be given council housing whereas white citizens were not.”

Lady Thatcher asked what the implications of such a move could be given that an exodus of the white population from Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – was expected once majority rule was established. She made clear, however, that she had “less objection to refugees such as Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians, since they could more easily be assimilated into British society”.

Emphasis added.

(In passing – “all those who wrote letters in this sense should be invited to accept one into their homes”! Stay classy, Margaret.)

So in 1979 it’s obvious that Asians are harder to assimilate than Poles – they’re not White!
And in 2015 it’s obvious that Poles are harder to assimilate than Asians – they’re not non-White!

My interlocutor replied:

I am not condoning these attitudes, but seeking to understand and explain them. I am afraid the migration is wonderful (stick your fingers in your ears) etc approach will not change hearts and minds, unless those advocating it address the concerns of those not sharing that view.

Perception is reality, even if there is very little evidence to support that perception. And you are not going to change the perception by saying let us have uncontrolled migration.

Which raises the question of how an evidence-free perception can be changed – not with evidence, presumably. I thought about this a bit more and came up with the following, which (as you can see) got too long for a comment box.

Thinking some more about this notion of ‘real concerns’ which underlie expressions of racism, there are two points I’d make. First off, there is a very general tendency to be prejudiced against people who are Not Like Us, particularly if those people are in a minority and visibly (or audibly!) different. Most of us outgrow these feelings, recognise them as unworthy or at worst learn to repress them; more importantly, most of us have life experiences which tell us on a personal level that ‘those people’ are Like Us, that some of ‘them’ are Us. (All the more so in recent decades – my son had more non-White friends at school than I ever did; come to think of it, more than I ever have.) But some people never have those experiences, aren’t very reflective or generous-minded and don’t mix with people who are, and those people will have a genuine, personal, emotional reaction to the arrival of more of ‘those people’. (My grandmother, God rest her, went to her grave convinced that Indian cooking was ‘dirty’. “She probably thinks the brown comes off their fingers,” my mother said.) I don’t know what’s to be done about people like that, except for God’s sake not to encourage them. They do not have very real concerns. Their views are not valid. Yes, there was a time when we all used those words. No, you can’t say those things any more. Good.

Secondly, at the moment I live in an area with very real pressure on services. The local primary school, an Edwardian structure with ‘BOYS’ picked out in stonework over one of the entrances, recently put on a third year-group (i.e. an expansion in capacity of 50%), with extensive new building to accommodate it (they essentially built another school on top of the school); getting a doctor’s appointment has been a pain for a while, but following a recent reorganisation it’s now a pain and a half. What does this tell me? The expansion of the school tells me that pressure on services can be met with an expansion of service provision. The reorganisation of the health centre tells me that if service provision doesn’t expand in response to pressure (perhaps being subjected to a half-arsed reorganisation instead), that’s the problem. What doesn’t occur to me – genuinely doesn’t occur to me, any more than it would occur to me to wear shorts to work – is to blame the people who have moved into the area.

This, clearly, is what’s going on when people voice their very real concerns, so it may be worth establishing why it is that I don’t do it. It may be because I’ve no idea who those incomers are, or even if there is any identifiable group of incomers (people may have stopped moving out; older people may have died and younger people, with families, moved into their old homes; there are a variety of possible scenarios). It may be because I’m a well-meaning Guardian reader, or – relating back to the first point – that I’ve been socialised to beware of prejudice and to try and make sure my beliefs are supported by evidence. But I think the most important factor – my most important value in this respect – is the conviction that you don’t kick down. If someone’s in the same boat as you – or even worse off than you – you may not extend a friendly hand; you may not particularly like them or want them around you. But you don’t blame them for what’s wrong with the world. This seems like basic common sense to me: politically speaking, there are people running things (stop me if I get too technical), and if things are running badly it’s basically going to be their fault, by and large. Down here at ground level – down among the wage slaves and the ‘consumers’ – the way things are is basically not our fault, except in the sense that we’re all perpetuating an unjust system through wage labour and commodity consumption; and in a Marxist perspective even that’s scarcely our fault, morally speaking. If the people in power screw things up, somebody in a position of power needs to put them right. If there’s not enough to go round, you demand more for everyone; if there’s not enough room in the lifeboats, you demand more lifeboats (or equal shares in what lifeboats there are). This, I think, is what was both wrong & deeply right about the Lindsey wildcat strike – the one that had the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ hung on it (mostly, it has to be said, by non-participants). To say that British jobs should, in general, be reserved for British workers is to blame the (foreign) workers for the competition they introduce. What the Lindsey strikers actually attacked – correctly – was the bosses’ action in importing an entire workforce, unilaterally removing a source of employment from workers living in Britain (and, incidentally, imposing differential pay rates). Workers are not the problem; deprivation of work is the problem, and it’s not the workers who are doing that. Immigrants are not the problem; service shortages are the problem, and it’s not the immigrants who are creating them.

How to address the concerns of people who want to see controls on immigration (and who, presumably, will be more likely to vote Labour if the party offers them)? Tell them they’ve forgotten something very important: you don’t kick down. (I say ‘forgotten’; they may never have known it in the first place, but it’s kinder not to remind them.) It’s not about well-meaning liberals telling hard-pressed working people that “migration is wonderful” (“Love your neighbour, wherever they’re from” as Ian Dury put it). It’s about who’s causing the problems and who isn’t; where solutions are going to come from and where they aren’t; who they – and all of us – should be angry with, and who we shouldn’t. There’s a lot at stake here: there’s a great deal of latent anger out there (some of it not entirely latent), and if we get the wrong result in May it could easily be channelled in some very unpleasant directions. I know Labour’s leadership are aware of this; I had hoped they would act, and campaign, accordingly.

On inspection, incidentally, Labour’s actual proposals for controlling immigration turn out to be the enforcement of the minimum wage and an unpleasant but largely meaningless clampdown on the ‘benefits tourism’ non-problem. So they actually aren’t kicking down to any great extent. But, by the same token, they’ve left an open goal for any political opponent or hostile interviewer: the pledge says ‘Controls on immigration’; where are they? All in all it’s dreadful stuff. The idea seems to be triangulation, straight out of Bill Clinton’s playbook – pitching a left-wing policy in language that ticks the Daily Mail‘s boxes – and, absent a leader with Bill Clinton’s personal charisma and charm, I don’t believe it can possibly work.


One Comment

  1. Posted 1 April 2015 at 22:15 | Permalink | Reply

    “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill.

    Tackling how perception trumps reality is a difficult one. On average, people perceive the incidence of crime to be greater than it actually is and, arguably committing more resources to try to lower crime further may do nothing to shift that perception closer to reality. Realistically, though, would anyone seeking office run on a platform saying we have done crime and you are just going to have to live with that perception?

    I am very heretical, I have serious evidence based doubts about the point of DWP Fraud, Decisions Facing Rachel Reeves on Friday 8th May 2015 (14: Is DWP Fraud Washing Its Face?) #GE2015 However, I am not sure whether any political party, except a centre right one would be able to make the changes I propose. It takes a Nixon to go to China and address these three issues that obsess our predominantly right wing media.

    I was born in the Ward to which I refer so I was born into the working class and I have been a Guardian reader for some 35 years. Those 35 years have not given me a rose tinted view of the working class. Some of them need no encouragement to kick down; some are real life Alf Garnetts, racist, misogynistic etc working males. Matthew Goodwin (of Revolt on the Right fame) blocked me on Twitter for making just that point. He said I was patronising and condescending. I had pointed out his book was poorly researched and only involved interviews, some only agreed to on the grounds of anonymity, with ukip activists. He conducted none with rank and file party members and supporters. He declined my offer to meet with some people from around the road. A while later he tried to claim my criticism of him was because he had not agreed to interview me. I rebutted by pointing out that interviewing me would not be much point. I am not after all remotely connected with ukip, but I seem to know more about the .people supporting ukip than him.

    I twice worked as an Adviser in a Jobcentre and more than once heard the line from a client that he would be getting more JSA if he were black or Asian. Yes, there is working class solidarity, but nowhere near as much as some would like to think. In addition, when you are looking for a job and know that you are competing with around 10 people for each one then some people will focus on anyone not like them who is getting in the way whether they are female, a Person With a Disability etc. If you do not get it you may decide to blame someone else for having an unfair advantage, because of gender, race etc and not because you were not the best person on the interview list. Some on the Left who are sounding off on the migration issue are the ones going around telling people that there are no jobs for which to apply. Different day, different slogan, but no joined up sloganeering?

    Are public services under pressure? Yes and no, changes in demand do affect service delivery and, of course, some of that response comes from recruiting migrant workers. There are bigger issues about why our public services are failing to deliver that go beyond public, good and private, bad or public, bad and private, good. Much of our management in the three sectors of the UK economy is not fit for purpose. Ignoring that issue is a policy shared by nearly all political parties, including ukip and the Greens. Salaried, middle class, middle managers by and large will not vote for policies that would affect their financial security. You are right about latent anger, but you might be surprised about some of us harbouring it and why we are doing so. I am more than a bit disenchanted with Green Party policies like bringing all of rail back into public ownership, a 10% cut in rail fares across the board and the Basic Income. Simplistic solutions to complex problems. Cheap electoral stunts appealing to middle class liberals, the Green’s core vote. Moreover, in the case of the Basic Income seemingly people with no knowledge of our current Social Security system.

    Cuts are being made in public services, partly due to austerity and partly due to poor service delivery. These stories dominate the media along with stories of migrants. Add in the number of people looking for jobs and the stories about migrants. Well you put yourself in the place of the average Sun reader. The average Sun reader who refused to believe you could not buy a house outright on Social Security. Why? Because the Sun had said, you could and what did I know? I was the one trained in Social Security law etc, by the way. Perhaps I was part right, because he and his two friends were white and the story had been about someone who was not so … Those guys were members of the there is someone, somewhere out there, getting something which they do not deserve and/or to which they are not entitled (and at my expense) and which I cannot get, but should be able to get, or to which I am not entitled, but should be tendency. I know they are selfish, small minded and lacking in empathy, but they do exist and they seem to be voting ukip. In addition, if you were one of them would you think the Green Party was a working class party like ukip? The latter is, if you see yourself as a private needing to be led by an officer class of nobs.

    The Green Party (backed by Guardian reading public sector workers) with its (perceived?) policy of unrestricted migration has surged to 5% in the polls whilst ukip (backed by with its perceived policy of no migration is still at 15%. It is of a piece with that 10 percentage point gap that most of the social legislation passed by Labour did not attract support from across the movement. The TUC (and the CBI) opposed Roy Jenkins bringing in the second Race Relations Act. He was remedying the absence in the previous Act of legislation covering employment and housing. In fact, only narrowly did the TUC approve the setting up of a Labour Party. A party incidentally that owes more to Methodism, the middle class, mutualism and the Liberal Party than Marxism. And those doubting trades union leaders were social conservatives, interested mostly in knife and fork questions rather than abstract concepts. Has much really changed? Alan Johnson opposed Labour having the National Minimum Wage as a policy at the TUC in 1979 and his was not a lone voice.

    I am a keen exponent of Total Quality Management, a core tenet of which is you have to set a baseline so you know where you are starting from before you even think about going through a process of Plan, Do, Observe and Act (and repeat). Too much of modern politics and comment thereon seems to involve setting aside establishing baselines, perhaps because, regardless of our politics, we would prefer not to crunch the data for fear of what we would learn? In the Guardian, Comment is Free, but facts are sacred so sacred that that part of the website is just called called CiF and so sacred that most commentators do not deploy facts in their pieces and, when they do, they seem to prepare their comment piece and then season it with facts that do not detract from their contentions.

    I had my beliefs shaken and challenged by interviewing 1,000s of working class jobseekers. However, unlike the graduates of Marxism Today’s editorial team I have not become an uber Thatcherite, but I do know there are other points of view out there and some are very discomforting. I also know that to get real, sustainable change in our society requires an ability to broker deals and compromises, create (temporary) partnerships and put yourself in the other man or woman’s shoes. Sometimes the latter means accepting that their perception has to be in part addressed to get progress and that may take some time. In addition, I am regularly reminded of Lloyd George’s words in conversations like this, you may keep your principles shining brightly and not get your hands on the levers of power or get your principles a little tarnished, get your hands on the levers of power and do something. He did not do so badly, improving the condition of the working class, by taking his own advice.

    I have gone into a lot of the above on my blog and as I think we agree these are not sound bite issues. The list of posts is here I would draw your attention to these four posts:

    Marxism In A Total Quality Management Setting Part 1 #GE2015 #TQM #Deming #Marx #KarlMarx #WEDeming via @Jodatu

    #ukip Return of Alf Garnett Or If You Want Rumanian For Neighbour, Vote Labour? #GE2015 #ThanetSouth via @Jodatu

    Does #MichaelWhite, #Guardian Know What Grown-up Migration Debate Would Look Like? #RochesterandStrood via @Jodatu

    Digging Behind the Facade of #BenefitsStreet 2 #GE2015! via @Jodatu

    Finally, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary …” (James Madison) and vox populi is certainly not vox dei. Whilst we wait for voters to become angels at the right hand of God we must endure the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried, representative democracy.

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