In response to Alan Johnson on the Brown Gaffe

In response to Alan Johnson on the Brown Gaffe

M. Harris: More on the Brown Gaffe

ALAN JOHNSON?S analysis about the “disconnect” between the working-class and the Labour party is one I share–to a point. By concentrating on the working class uniquely as a group that Labour has “failed” Johnson misses wider shifts in the electorate and also over-eggs the pudding. Amongst working-class voters (especially social classes D & E), Labour is significantly outperforming other political parties. Blaming Labour for not opening up the debate over immigration is deeply unfair. Briton?s views on immigration, like Americans, are contradictory, and debate on this issue is often thankless–thanks to our tribal media–and can serve to rally people around economically unsound policies.

It isn?t just working-class voters who feel this disconnect: the lower middle classes feel anxious too in this era of globalization heralded by New Labour and encompassed in the cosmopolitan figure of Tony Blair. Blair was not just comfortable with city finance, with globalization, immigration, and London as the transient hub of this new world order, he actively embodied its values and lobbied for them. The English (and Labour?s problem is more specifically English) found Blair?s boldness in creating a “new Britain” endearing in part. Since Britain grew richer far faster than her European counterparts France, Germany and Italy, the English were happy to accommodate Labour?s push on increased immigration, multiculturalism, and a sea change in cultural attitudes towards minorities (especially gay people).

Yet although the gap between the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent of the population narrowed and the number of poor people in Britain declined (see above image), the explosion in wealth for the top 1 percent was phenomenal and ended up acting against the vested interests of ordinary Britons. This lead to a far wider disconnect than Johnson suggests, not just between working-class Britons and middle-class Britons, but between as City stockbrokers joked, “the haves and the haves-yachts.”

London before the recession saw enormous developments initiated and paid for by the excesses created by the financial services sector. Flats across London were built for workers in this sector, priced far out of the reach of ordinary families. As house prices rose 90 percent from 2002-2007, working-class and lower middle-class people saw any aspiration of buying into Britain?s property-owning democracy vanish.
The ratio of lower-quartile house prices to lower-quartile earnings, a measure of affordability used in the Barker Review of Housing Supply, rose from 4 in 2000 to 5.2 in 2003 and 7.1 in 2006.

Labour, during this time, had nothing to say on the issue. With no national plan for housing, overcrowding rose and lower middle-class people found themselves caught in a rental-trap. U.S. readers of Dissent would be shocked at the overcrowding now prevalent in British cities. Condos for 2-3 people will now routinely hold families of 6 or 7 with 3 children or teenagers in tiny bedrooms. Whereas George Bush?s flirtation with finance allowed poor families to take up ill-advised mortgages, in Britain the expansion of finance simply drove up the asset values for existing home owners.

As a result, immigration is definitely a major issue. Even in the cohesive multicultural community that I represent (I am standing as a local Councillor in South-East London), I am consistently questioned over whether the level of immigration we have seen in recent years is sustainable. However, the issue is not, as Johnson suggests, over the actual level of immigration, for there is little that can be done. 80 percent of immigration comes from the European Union, over which the UK government has no control. And as Alan Johnson points out, the European Union project has developed with almost no democratic mandate.

If Alan?s solution is to try and cut immigration or to open a wider discussion from the political class about immigration–it will unfortunately be doomed to failure. With 80 percent of immigration non-controllable, we end up with a debate about the remaining 20 percent that covers student visas, professional immigration, and the bete noire of the rabid right-wing press: asylum seekers.

We have obligations under ratified international treaties towards asylum seekers. The numbers seeking refuge in the UK have fallen in recent years. Britain is home to less than 2 percent of the world?s refugees, and when factored against overall size, population and wealth, the UK ranks 32nd in the world. Between 1990 and 2000, just under two million people applied for asylum in Germany–four times as many as in the UK. When compared to the size of the total national population–a key indicator of the capacity of countries to host asylum seekers–the UK ranked only eighth in Europe in 2002 and twelfth over the past decade as a whole (1992-2001).

It?s hard to keep desperate people out of Britain, thus, the real debate centers on deporting those who fail the criteria to stay. It?s not a pleasant debate. Time and time again asylum seekers commit suicide rather than face deportation. We already intern children in detention centers (against European law) and impose draconian measures on those who harbor or employ illegal migrants.

So what debate is left? To cut the remaining non-refugee, non-EU immigration (now that the points-based system is in force) would be to refuse entry to highly-skilled professionals–or more likely, students who contribute £3.3 billion per annum to UK GDP. This would be economically illiterate.

So when Gordon Brown shied away from talking about immigration to ex-Labour voter Gillian Duffy you can hardly blame him. The electorate are fed a diet of anti-immigrant stories by sections of the rabid right-wing media (see Daily Mail ?Taxpayers pay £1,600-a-week for family of ex-asylum seekers to live in luxury five-storey home?) with little or no serious analysis. The myths of immigration are more powerful than the facts.

A more progressive housing policy would help neuter some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric in play today. But, to use the phrase of the moment, we need a game-changer in British politics from the left. Unless Labour is finally prepared to admit that the state?s share of GDP will be far higher in the next decade than the last and that, in some form, there will need to be government intervention in the housing market–a return to core Labour values–then it cannot hope to reconnect with voters. The choice seems to be a bankrupt one between Tory or Labour cuts (but only letting the electorate in on 5 percent of total cuts proposed), between Tory macho posturing on immigration or Labour toughness.

It?s time for some political courage. To reconnect with voters the Labour Party should have been honest about the scale of the economic crisis that confronts Britain and then laid out a clear plan for the future. This was not an election the party was going to win, so mapping out clear understandable values would have given the party a base to rebuild from. As it stands, Gillian Duffy?s confusion is one that many voters–working-class and middle-class–share.

Suggested reading:
Labour?s disconnect with the white working-class is explored on blog Left Foot Forward.

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