Who will oppose the demonization of migrants?

By the end of May, Britain had suffered the worst excess death level in Europe; our recession is both the deepest since records began and the most severe of the seven leading industrialised nations.

The number of people in work is already in freefall and pay packets are shrinking, and that’s before the furlough scheme is wound down. With this record, it’s no wonder our rulers would rather direct public resentment and fury toward a reliable scapegoat: the alien. Our home secretary has proposed deploying the Navy against tiny red dinghies filled with desperate migrants: a “completely potty” suggestion, says one anonymous Ministry of Defence source.

Inhumane, sure; potentially dangerous, yes: potty, no. A significant swathe of the population is keener on deploying British military ships against people of colour who have fled war and dictatorship, than they are against armed foreign foes. Using the naval fleet to chase Afghan, Syrian and Iranian migrants around the Channel will have one meaningful impact: to tell those voters that their government is keeping its promise to build Fortress Britain – over the objections of leftwing traitors who want to replace white Britons with radical Muslims.

As Tory MPs denounce “invading migrants” their aim is transparent: to portray fellow human beings, fleeing misery few Britons will ever witness, as a hostile and dangerous army. The government’s narrative has been amplified by national broadcasters, who send their own ships to beam live pictures of dinghies bobbing towards English beaches, turning some of the world’s most desperate people into contestants on a perverse reality TV show. There is no exploration of who they are, or what they have seen or endured.

This unthinking repetition of Faragist framing needs to be strongly challenged – but this argument will never be won using facts and statistics: to do so is “like bringing a calculator to a knife fight”, as comedian Josh Sundquist put it. That does not mean the truth is not an important weapon here. Contrary to myth, refugees are not obliged to claim asylum in the first place they land. And Britain is hardly “deluged” – we had many fewer asylum applications in 2019 (49,000) than Germany (165,600), France (129,000) and Spain (118,000). In fact, the vast majority of the world’s refugees – 84% – are located in developing nations. Only 16% reside in wealthy countries that are former colonial powers or involved in recent foreign interventions.

Economic insecurity is not the sole cause of anti-migrant backlash – the role of plain old racism should never be ignored – but it provides fertile ground. When people feel they are competing for scarce resources, messages encouraging them to turn against supposed competitors for the few affordable homes or jobs in existence undoubtedly resonate.

When the British National party made devastating inroads in Barking and Dagenham’s local elections in 2006, that had much to do with the mass sell-off of council housing: arguments claiming that what little stock remained was going to foreigners tapped into and stoked existing resentments. Economic ills need convincing and coherent answers, otherwise the simplistic mantra of scapegoating fills the vacuum.

The danger is that Labour fails to understand this. When Ed Miliband assumed the leadership in 2010, his main passion was inequality: but it was immigration, not the gap between rich and poor, that was the subject of repeated set-piece speeches. Influential figures in the party repeatedly insisted that Labour had to show it was “serious” about controlling immigration – but this merely drove the issue up the agenda, giving assistance to Tories and Faragists. This week, Labour’s shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch declined to challenge the government’s demonisation of migrants; instead, she criticised their management of the problem.

That Britain is bitterly divided on generational lines on this issue, as so many others, is undoubtedly true. Some 61% of the under-25s have a great or fair amount of sympathy for those crossing the Channel, compared with just 35% of the over-65s. The danger is that Labour’s fence-sitting will gain contempt from the young without winning the trust of the old. Attitudes towards immigration have softened in recent years: while Corbynism, sadly, did not make the passionate case for migrants and refugees that its leading figures made as backbenchers, its refusal to indulge migrant-bashing surely helped shift public opinion.

Allies of the Labour leadership will point, defensively, to polls and focus groups as an alibi for their silence. It is a sharp contrast to their energetic campaign for an unpopular second referendum – which made the case for remain as the morally right thing to do in spite of the polls; why not do the same for humans fleeing horrors?

If Labour has learned one thing from Brexit, is it not the danger of confronting an enemy possessing a simple message with mealy-mouthed waffle? Grave economic and social turmoil beckons: expect the Tories and their media allies to turn up the scapegoating dial as it arrives. If the opposition doesn’t stand up for migrants and offer real answers to Britons suffering under Tory rule, the right will only get stronger.

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