Since Jon Cruddas was appointed Labour’s Policy Chief, Ed Miliband has taken an unusual tack in recent weeks.
In early June he made a speech about Englishness. It was interesting in the sense that while the Government have been committing suicidal U-Turns and leaving huge open goals, he took Labour down a difficult and bewildering set of arguments. His speech hinted at the impact Jon Cruddas was having:
Even if Labour has been too quiet about England in recent years, it has not always been so. As my colleagues Jon Cruddas and John Denham have done so much to remind us, there are great Labour traditions that can help us think about England.
Jon was part of Blue Labour. This movement strongly argued that a Labour Government should be more conservative on issues such as immigration and crime, to chime with working class Labour voters.
Ed was recently interviewed by The Guardian, and it was published yesterday. It stated:
Speaking to the Guardian, Miliband admitted the Labour government allowed too many immigrants from eastern Europe into the country by lifting controls on EU accession countries such as Poland too quickly, but denied his party lied about immigration, as claimed by his former adviser Lord Glasman.
John Denham, former Labour Home Office Secretary, was interviewed on Today this morning:
There was a “debate still to be had” about overall numbers, he said, but added that the UK had benefited “economically, culturally and socially” from migration. A Labour administration would focus on three things to help ease pressure on public services and wages including better enforcement of the minimum wage, cracking down on recruitment agencies who only supplied workers from particular countries and looking at areas and types of jobs where there were large numbers of foreign workers. “We need to make sure there is a level playing field … What [Ed Miliband] is saying is that there has to be a fair chance for everybody,” he said
This is dangerous ground for Labour., much like that of English identity. Debates on both subjects create more heat than light. Ed’s comments when read in detail are genuinely nuanced and not easily summed up in a headline. They are easily misrepresented, a gift to opponents too.
However, there is a genuine concern about this strategy. In clearly difficult economic times, appealing to national identity with hints of protectionism are not welcome. As the great depression demonstrated, a global crisis is exacerbation by such things. We need a pan-national approach to issues such as climate change and third world poverty too.
Another hazard is confusing the electorate. It could be argued that the free-movement of labour putting a downward pressure on wages is precisely what global capitalists want to happen, in race to the bottom. Therefore, the risk remains that people could easily misconstrue Ed’s remarks as blaming East European immigrants for the falling of wages for the working classes. This is just a symptom of global capitalism. Similarly, the pressure on housing and public services isn’t caused by immigrants – it’s a symptom of not building enough houses or capacity into our schools and hospitals.
Lastly, and most importantly, these arguments take the cause of the left firmly into the centre-ground of politics. Labour will end up trading immigration numbers with the Conservatives and distract them from making the battle over the unequal education system Michael Gove is creating, the privatisation of the NHS and the redistribution from the poor to the rich driven by George Osborne.
This is the challenge for the left.