Ed West

I have more respect for Labour politicians who defend their record on immigration than those who pander

I have more respect for Labour politicians who defend their record on immigration than those who pander
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Wonderful: Labour has a new slogan on immigration, which appears to be the Conservatives’ old slogan from 2005, the one that Labour said was racist.

I have far more respect for any Labour politician who actually defends their record on mass immigration – only a fifth of which was from Europe, incidentally, although that gets at least four-fifths of the coverage – than those who goes along with the current fashion. Someone who said that diversity made us more tolerant and kinder and was culturally-enriching; and that the economic benefits, although they are more helpful to the rich than the poor, are worth the downsides. That mass immigration was a Left-wing thing – in the words of former Labour speechwriter Andrew Neather, part of the ‘Leftish language of social justice’.

I don’t agree with any of those arguments, but it’s a defensible position, and it’s central to the modern Labour Party. If you don’t agree with it, why would you be on the Labour front benches?

I suspect they don’t make this honest argument because under Blair Labour encouraged immigration knowing it would be pretty unpopular with their supporters, but they thought that these people were simply wrong and would either come around to it or die out. Besides which, the party probably banked on the fact that the taboo about the subject, which stems ultimately from imperial guilt and the European disaster of 1914-45, would prevent any party from trying to outflank them on the Right. And before 2004, when Polish immigration deracialised the subject and Trevor Phillips broke the taboo about multiculturalism (MigrationWatch also played a part), almost no one did.

It’s common among some members of the commentariat to suggest it’s all a myth that we ‘can’t talk about immigration’. But all you have to do is go to the BBC News website's archive, all available online, to see why people were wary for so long. Look at the way opposition to immigration, or by today’s standards fairly mild criticism of multiculturalism, was presented as racism. A very small selection of samples can be found here:

‘Cook blames Hague for race outbursts’

‘Tory's race remarks recall "rivers of blood"’

‘Tories deny 'racism' jibe’

‘Both major parties have been accused of creating a debate on the issue that could give comfort to racists’

‘Tories 'whipping up anti-asylum vote'’

Or look at how Labour’s arguments for more immigration were presented, almost without question, even though the economic benefits are flimsy (the social costs weren’t raised at all).

‘Green card 'may solve skills shortage'’

‘Migrants 'benefit UK economy'’

Nowhere was it suggested that Labour might have, ahem, other considerations when it came to opening up the border.

That’s just a very brief selection. But look at any BBC news report from this period and the tone was the same – if you question mass immigration, you’re basically Hitler.

So, yes, there was a sense that ‘we can’t talk about immigration’ for fear of being seen as racist, and a great part of that was due to the Labour Party’s PR machine, with the assistance of sympathetic journalists, presenting it that way. We’re now simply having the argument, in 2014, that we should have had in 2000 and 2001.

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion.