Electability is the hot topic in Labour. It’s a pretext for attempting to remove Jeremy Corbyn and attacking his policies. That is politics, but conference has not been as dull as usual; it’s been ugly.
A trend is emerging among Labour MPs who claim to be engaging on ‘real’ issues. The issue in question? Immigration and immigrants. The answer allowed to creep into the mainstream? Immigrants aren’t doing their share.
I drone on about feeling unwelcome in the party, and my trepidation about remaining a member. I fully support Corbyn, and I would have supported Owen Smith. I’m a ‘party man’ and that means policy comes first. Party policy.
While Corbyn is always clear on his stance, Smith initiated the idea Labour should be hard on immigration. With lies. I’m glad I voted for Corbyn, but unless policy clarifies our stance on immigration; I will be leaving.
New Labour held the BNP to account, while Neo-Labour perpetuate anti-immigrant narratives. It isn’t new, nor particularly old, it’s UKIP’s platform. If this is how we become electable, count me out.
MPs have learnt a lesson from Brexit, but the wrong one. If you voted to leave the EU you are considered racist, ignorant or gullible. Given the Labour vote for remain, it’s strange MPs are now pushing for a ‘hard Brexit’. Chuka Umunna, my own MP, represents a very diverse constituency; one that voted heavily to remain. Yet at conference his words shocked me.
Umunna is not alone (nor is it his first time using right wing rhetoric), similar narratives are being pushed by MPs such as Rachel Reeves and Caroline Flint. It isn’t that they use the same language as Nigel Farage or Enoch Powell, but they are playing their game. They aren’t fighting the narrative, they are accepting it. Attempting to spin xenophobic positions into left wing positions.
They are failing, primarily because it is impossible to succeed. For all the hatred of Blairites and New Labour, Tom Watson made a point that must be acknowledged on Tuesday: New Labour weren’t evil. I disagree with regard to Tony Blair, but he had a different solution to immigration. ‘Liberate’ them in their country of origin.
The morning after Brexit I looked out the window and saw a van flying the Union Jack. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it was out of place in Brixton. That was the first time I ever felt worried about living in this country, which is supposedly my home.
Yet now the impact of the vote leaves me further isolated, because I now feel my own party will not defend me.
Umunna’s ignorant and right wing rhetoric astounds me. His claims were not controversial on a surface reading, but they show a side to him he reveals from time to time. Despite his constituency being one of the most deprived in England, he dislikes people he considers “trash”. Ignoring his own heritage, even though it was at the forefront of his campaign for selection. The views expressed by Umunna chill me because he has direct experience of these issues – both personally and politically.
Brexit’s legacy of xenophobic attacks is of far more concern than our EU status. I attended the first pro-EU rally after the referendum, not because I’m a europhile; because I was scared. Only when I arrived did I realise the absurdity of it. None of the speakers were there for the reasons I was. While well intentioned crowd members may have joined for the reasons I did, the rally was not about the hatred that the referendum had incited.
Jo Cox’s name was invoked to bolster speakers, Conservatives spoke of the benefits of the free market and a few on freedom of movement. Solidarity was nowhere to be found at this rally; I didn’t want to overturn a referendum result – I was seeking a sense of belonging.
Yet the blame for this is mine. This was not an event for me, it wasn’t about fighting the violence and hatred that became mainstream. It was about the EU and nothing more.
And therein lies the problem, how exactly are immigrants supposed to integrate with British society? A genuine question, not as an immigrant, I am a British citizen. My father is Ghanaian, but was born into the British Gold Coast; my mother is Welsh, the first colony of the great empire. I was born in St. Thomas’ hospital in London, but I’ve never felt as if I belonged – not in England.
You see, there is a barrier that Umunna is aware of: that British national identity has been appropriated by the far right. It is not theirs, it is something that I believe the left could reclaim, but it hasn’t. Nationalism is racism by another name, but a degree of ‘patriotism’ over trivial events isn’t reprehensible.
I will never understand the connection that many feel to Andy Murray, nor Jessica Ennis-Hill, but neither result directly in hatred. Both allow people to feel that sense of belonging I search for. Corbyn has provided a common cause and sense of unity for many, but I’ve always looked to Labour.
While Corbyn’s views on immigration are clear, at this conference Labour have not been singing from the same hymn sheet. Clive Lewis supports party policy on Trident (which I respect him for) while Corbyn is vice-president of CND.
I cannot take Corbyn’s position as Labour policy; nor do I advocate that being the case, but I need clarity.
Is Labour’s new anti-austerity platform is at the expense of migrants?
Refugees, migrants and asylum seekers
The mainstream media has been playing this game for years. Equivocation between the terms they use to describe a group betrays their motives. Attacking asylum seekers is no longer in vogue, but it is a term that rose to prominence through demagoguery.
When my father arrived in Britain he was a political refugee. Narrowly escaping execution by the military coup perpetrated by Jerry Rawlings (BBC bias present in the link), few would feel comfortable in sending him ‘back from whence he came’. Yet the power of language can change a narrative instantly.
Nick Griffin and Farage both enjoy talking about asylum seekers, and the terminology is important. It places the responsibility in the hands of those fleeing. A legal status, not a term that describes the individual nor the circumstances that led them to Britain. In changing the language in a subtle way, the burden of responsibility is far easier to avoid. After all, these people are here ‘seeking’ something – we’d better be alert to what it is they want.
Speaking to pedlars of hatred, you get a straight answer. They want your women, jobs, houses and benefits. The insidious nature of redefining a group who are already considered ‘other’ works because they have a narrative. One that fits current rhetoric and plays on people’s suffering and fear.
Yet doing so must ignore the suffering of those it describes. The recent “migrant crisis” encapsulates this abomination. Britain transcended its outrage at “swarms” crossing the Mediterranean, but not through benevolence.
The image of the child refugee washed ashore shocked the country, but keep one thing in mind: he was a refugee. Why? Because the other terminology belongs to the far right, Tories and their ilk.
Trying to reconcile with MPs
I have been on a mission to repair the damage this race has done to our party. There are others fighting the same battle, but I’ve made repeated overtures towards MPs. Not because I agree with them ideologically, because I’m a Labour member – and so are they.
The PLP are Labour members, like you or I; but they have succeeded in being elected to parliament. Seats belong to the individual, not the party and so the words that emanate from the PLP are my link to them. During this contest I have clashed with Chi Onwurah, but we have since reconciled our differences. Her politics are not objectionable, nor her general demeanour. Onwurah’s ‘tribute’ to Margaret Thatcher is a joy to behold.
Equally I’ve conversed with Jess Phillips, Wes Streeting and Tom Watson; not to achieve political consensus on issues, but to ensure we remain united. Labour is as close to a ‘home’ in terms of belonging I have (outside of my newly found wonderful readers of course), and I want to preserve it.
None of the above back my candidate, but all have engaged in a positive tone. Building bridges with the PLP gives me hope, reconciliation with Onwurah genuinely made me happy. It wasn’t about politics or leadership; it was about reuniting as one party, remembering the areas we agree and discussing those we don’t.
While I cannot tell you the positions of all of the above on immigration, Phillips offered a robust defence of refugees in Berlin. I know people will tell me she was ‘weaponising feminism’, but that isn’t what I saw.
I saw a feminist defending refugees and highlighting an important fact: refugees and migrants are not an ‘other’ to fear.
The MPs above are not darlings of the Corbyn community, but they needn’t be. Of those listed only Streeting has made questionable remarks about immigrants. These are the sort of remarks I feel need explanation, along with those of Flint, Umunna and Reeves.
Discussing immigration should not be taboo; but the tone of the discussion and language involved is important. Claiming that “the failure is ours”, that “immigration has become the problem” doesn’t challenge a narrative – it reinforces it. By accepting it, rather than challenging it they allow it to flourish. It is irrelevant what your message is when the headline frames immigration as a problem.
Labour are terrible at challenging narratives. Ed Miliband wasn’t strong enough to refute apparent fiscal irresponsibility with the truth. Labour did not cause the recession, but that isn’t what voters hear. By standing on a pro-austerity platform Miliband accepted culpability which Labour needed not to.
Would we have succeeded in destroying the narrative? Perhaps not, but this isn’t just about elections, it’s about British society. By pandering to a false interpretation of events, he damaged Labour’s credibility.
Miliband’s leadership and policies are what allowed the idea to flourish. The 2015 general election was not simply a disaster due to lost seats; it signalled a point at which Labour lost the will to fight for the truth – on the off chance it wasn’t an easy sell.
So who are Labour now?
Corbyn’s mandate doesn’t give him control over the PLP or party policy. His speech at conference was beautifully inclusive, but the vast majority of MPs have no confidence in him – it is simply his position, not Labour policy. It does not command Commons votes.
The Labour Party is a broad church; diversity of ideas is to be encouraged, but we must stand for something. I take no issue with debating Israel and Palestine, I’m not in favour of PFI, but can listen to arguments in favour of it. Labour does not need unity in every area, but there are some areas in which agreement should be assumed.
Whatever views the MPs mentioned hold, there is a truth we cannot deny: they are utilising language we should condemn and reject. We can have a genuine political discussion, but the lessons to learn are regarding the language of it. If we allow toxic narratives to flourish through engaging with them, we mislead the public.
From the financial crash to Brexit, Labour have consistently failed to challenge misleading narratives. The issue is not whether the policy makes the party more electable, it’s the damage they cause when we accept them.
If views such as mine are unwelcome when seeking electoral success, I am happy to leave. I’ll vote Labour at the next general election, as I would if Smith had won – but I can’t stay.
They are asking for too much.