When Ed Miliband attempted to start a debate around immigration, he surely didn’t imagine the response would be this; ‘Miliband joins ranks of BNP recruiting sergeants, Legitimation of our message by Party’ tweeted Nick Griffin, Leader of the British National Party; ‘I am pleased to see that Miliband has finally agreed with UKIP’ said Nigel Farage, former United Kingdom Independence Party Leader also taking to twitter.
These tweets were, of course, gross over-exaggerations from politicians, repeatedly rejected by the public, desperately seeking media attention. Unfortunately reading Ed’s speech it was easy to see how his arguments could be exploited and manipulated by the far right. The admitting of mistakes over Polish immigration, coupled with examples of working class British workers losing out as a result of immigrant workers migrating to the UK, all bear a worrying resemblance to the narrative put forward by the BNP or EDL. These elements of the speech were the central focus of nearly all the reports by newspapers always happy to paint immigrants in a negative light.
Perhaps most worrying was suggestions in the media, although not included in the speech, that Labour would look to restrict certain benefits to some migrants. This would mean that people entering the United Kingdom would not just be facing hostility from those with prejudiced views, but actively be discriminated against by the state.
At a time of economic difficulty the danger of such an approach is clear for most to see. One only has to look to Greece to see that as the austerity has started to bite far too many have looked to make immigrants a scapegoat. This has manifested itself in an increase in the popularity of the far right Golden Dawn in the recent elections and even more worryingly with an increase in the number of violent attacks against immigrants. It is essential that such a situation is not allowed to develop in the United Kingdom and Labour should be at the forefront of challenging the tale told by the far-right and some sections of the media that immigration is responsible for the current decline in living standards faced by so many.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing was that the focus on the damaging perception of immigration actually took attention away from some sensible and encouraging policy suggestions that Ed Miliband was putting forward. The ideas around increased training for UK jobseekers in sectors where they have traditionally been under-represented and tougher sanctions for employees acting in an unscrupulous manner show that Labour can have something distinct to say when talking about problems facing working-class communities. We now need to take these ideas forward and show how Labour is on the side of working people during these difficult times. We can and must however, do this without pandering to the narrative put forward by the far right.