Migrants’ Rights Network: The anti-immigrant message stumbles, but who will come out on top?

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By Don Flynn*


Only a few days left before the vote in the European and local election poll. The anti-immigrant hardliners are taking flack after an inept radio interview performance by the leading Ukipper. But has the liberal mainstream the gumption to allow it forge past them with an optimistic message about diversity?


For anyone concerned with the rights of migrants, the gloomiest prognosis of where we might be four days ahead of polling for the European Parliamentary and local elections was that a strong anti-immigration narrative was being injected into the public discussion by the mainstream parties and this was pointing to a landslide victory for parties demanding a clampdown on the movement of people.

“Are you thinking what we are thinking?”

But despite the platform that the Ukippers have managed to create for themselves and the prominence given to their ‘They are After Your Job’ message it is still not clear that the populist right wing party is ruling the roost in quite the way they hoped.

Nigel Farage’s ‘car crash’ interview with LBC’s James O’Brien last week was the first occasion when the man who appeared immune to bad news seemed to have come unstuck with the wider public. His floundering attempt to explain why anxiety about hearing foreign languages being spoken on trains drained away a good deal of the credibility he has had with voters who appreciated his ‘cheeky chappie’ view of the world. The unease mounted as he went on to disparage Romanians, claiming that anxiety about having them as neighbours was bound to be justified by common-sense.

The misgivings that began to be aired after this interview do not yet amount to a wholesale rejection of the xenophobic messages that have been coded into the UKIP campaign. The desire to register a protest against the mainstream parties remains strong amongst a large section of the population and it will seem to many that a vote for Farage’s party will be the best way to do this.

But at the same time a sense of the repugnance to overtly anti-immigrant messages can be seen as making itself felt as we move closer to polling day. It is a mood rather similar to the one that scuppered the chances of Michael Howard when he led the Conservative general election campaign in 2005, when his ‘Are you thinking what we are thinking?’ message had the effect of reminding at least a segment of voters that politicians can mess with you head and lead you in directions which, in your heart of hearts, you really don’t want to go.

Political parties and their messages

When the history of this election campaign comes to be written it might well prove to be the case that the most significant turning point with regard to the public mood on immigration has come from the currents that cluster around the Conservative party rather than the centre left. Back at the beginning of May the centre right think tank Policy Exchange published its report, Portrait of Modern Britain, which predicted the rise of the proportion of black and minority ethnic people in the UK from their present 14% to around one-third of the population by the mid-century.

The report provided an account of communities which are at ease with their identities as being both black, Asian and British citizens and, if anything, even more committed to the future of the country than many amongst their white counterparts. The message that trailed across the media for a few critical days was that we do not have to be overwhelmed with anxiety about diversity and should indeed be more confident that society is sufficient robust and adaptable to allow us to be optimistic about the future.

If this piece of Tory research provided reasons for thinking that anti-immigrant paranoia might yet be turned, the same cannot be said for the Labour party’s main contribution to the discussion these past few weeks. The party’s leader has continued to hark on the theme of immigration eroding living standards and needing to be controlled as part of his strategy of coming to the aid of the ‘squeezed middle classes.’

At one point Mr Miliband seemed to be marking out a distinct approach to the public conversation when he set out his view in speeches that the exploitation of migrant workers needed to be tackled through rigorous enforcement of the minimum wage and control of agencies that channelled migrants into low paid jobs.

If there was merit in this basic idea it needed to be developed with a clear argument about the nature of the rights that ought to be in the grasp of all newcomers to the UK to ensure that they were able to join the ranks of other groups who were fighting against poverty and marginalisation.

But this has not happened and what was once an interesting idea is now in danger of morphing into UKIP-lite, with anxiety about migrants’ presence in the labour market taking the place of them speaking their own languages on public transport.

After the elections…

In just a few days time new political debate will replace the one about who comes top of the election popularity poll. The speculation will have to give way to the evidence and the question then to be answered is what 22 May and its European and local elections have really revealed to us about the state of the public mood about, amongst other issues, the vexed question of immigration.

Our bet is that the answer will require a much more nuanced understanding of what is going on other than the simplistic interpretation of it showing an inexorable rise of anti-immigrant sentiment.

The other part of the picture will be the signs of a public mood which is beginning to rally xenophobia and wanting a more progressive politics which will help us to feel more at ease, rather than more anxious, about the increasing diversity of our communities.  We can only hope that there will be enough politicians around on that day who are sufficiently canny to clock the emergence of this mood, and ready to put in the work to help it flourish in the mainstream.

Read original story here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

* Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organization’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. he is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.