Labour Party Conference LIVE Blog: Is the rise of anti-immigration parties inevitable in an open Europe?
This morning in Liverpool at Labour Party Conference, Business for New Europe, along with Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Trust asked the question, ‘Is the rise of anti-immigration parties inevitable in an open Europe?’. On the panel, we were joined by Lord Maurice Glasman, Margaret Hodge MP, Sunder Katwala, former General Secretary of the Fabian Society, Lilianne Ploumen, Chairwoman of the Dutch Labour Party and Phillip Souta, Director of Business for New Europe.
Olaf Cramme began the discussion by introducing the panellists and by stating that the debate on immigration has lead to two polarising views. On one side, people see labour mobility as a positive thing, helping an individual to fulfil his or her ambition and improve quality of life. On the other side, others see that labour mobility works to the advantage of businesses, becoming the new wage policy and will exploit those at the bottom of the labour market. The aim of today’s discussion is to find where Social Democrats, across Europe, should stand on this issue.
Maurice Glasman began the debate by saying that commidification was against social democratic principles. He continued by asking how does one conceptualise economic space. According to Glasman, thinking that Eastern Europe being in the same economic space as the UK is a mistake. This will lead to exploitation where Eastern European countries are not able to develop as wages are five times as high in Western Europe. Glasman does not think that far right parties are necessarily inevitable due to immigration, but would emerge if people were not allowed to debate and protect places they hold dear by common democratic action. Glasman said that no speech leads to a sense of powerlessness, ultimately leading to rage. He sees terrible competition at the low end of society, with no common institutions and a lack of a link between immigrants and trade unions.
Glasman said that in a public debate, it is much too technical to talk about the EU freedom of movement of people and it is extremely difficult to organise labour in such a very liberal environment. He called for the strengthening of local institutions and that unfortunately, the openness of labour has become perverted.
Margaret Hodge started her remarks by saying that she would like to take a completely different approach from the last speaker in regards to this subject. With living standards falling and economic stagnation, Hodge said that immigration is bound to be an issue and if mainstream political parties do not respond to this issue, there will undoubtedly be a shift to the right. Hodge believes that the approach to immigration by mainstream parties throughout her political lifetime by trying to control it has been a false premise. According to Hodge, immigration is a feature of globalisation and if one pretends to control it, one will fail. If we fail, government loses the trust of the people who are threatened economically and turn to fascist parties on the left.
Hodge continued by giving an example of an immigration policy failure by saying that in the UK, we started to control the number of asylum seekers entering the country only then to see the number of foreign students go up. According to Hodge, if you close one door, people will open another one as the UK is an attractive destination. Hodge believes that mainstream parties need to deal with immigration straight on. The question to this however, is how? Hodge answered by saying that we need to have an honest debate in this country about immigration. Her experience with dealing with Nick Griffin is that you have to have an honest discourse on the balance of public goods and that this debate should not be seeped in racism. As housing is a limited social good, white working class communities feel that the situation is unfair. They feel that individuals should contribute to society before benefitting from it.
Hodge called for the need to build on this to burst the bubble of immigration. She said that we should pretending that we can control numbers and look at the perceived unfairness in local communities in order to stop the rise of extreme parties. In her own constituency of Barking, Hodge has tried to reconnect with this disillusioned community by letting them voice their local concerns. Hodge believes that delivering at a grass roots level establishes trust and only then can we have an open conversation about immigration. Hodge called for a change of discourse to one of fairness.
Phillip Souta started his contribution by saying that Business for New Europe finds migration a hugely important topic and that he is supportive of migration on a European level. He called for honesty in the debate, however, as people believe that the current situation is unfair and that anti immigration parties are preying on this. Souta said that there is little evidence of ‘queue jumping’, or migrants disproportionately benefiting. It is however, according to Souta, for politicians to make this argument in the current political landscape.
Souta referred to Lord Glasman’s remarks and said Glasman advocated barriers and protectionism as a result of immigration. Souta then rebutted with the idea of ‘factor price equalisation’. This premise, according to Souta, stated that foreign workers (wherever in the world) are just as much likely to depress wages. Souta called for the UK to refrain from establishing barriers but instead, challenge and explain. According to Souta, migration and immigration have huge benefits, including millions of Britons living in Europe and that it can help toaddress demographic problems. Souta hoped the government would talk less about ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ and instead talk about ‘We’re all in this together’. Souta thinks that the UK has a good track record on integration compared to many of its European neighbours and we should bring a more positive tone to the debate.
Bringing a Dutch perspective to the debate following the rise of the far right party in the Netherlands, the PVV, Lilianne Ploumen said that the debate is not about ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. Rather, it is about discomfort and the feeling of loss amongst people in the Netherlands over the past decades. People feel that there is a loss of what has been common to them. Ploumen agreed with Hodges that most of these issues need to be tackled on a local level. Ploumen said that in the Netherlands, due to immigration, neighbourhoods have changed and that people are not able to communicate with each other anymore. She said that the Partij van de Arbied (the Dutch Labour Party) has been too late in acknowledging the problem and instead focusing on being ‘tolerant’, by focusing solely on jobs, housing and education and by being arrogant in terms of not acknowledging people who feel this discomfort. Ploumen said that acknowledgement should be the first step in addressing this issue and that it takes a lot of courage to do so. In 2009, Ploumen drafted a new programme entitled ‘Divided Past, Shared Future’ for her party on immigration bringing a huge debate within the party and throughout the country, which ultimately lead to international coverage. The resolution was passed by the party. Ploumen said that one positive thing to come out of this was that it enabled people to talk about their discomfort and say that ‘I am not a racist, but I am not happy with the way my neighbourhood is developing’.
According to Ploumen, the following are the key points of her programme and she advocates that Social Democrats should consider this:
1. Recognise pain and discomfort in large parts of society. Old manners and customs are no longer widely shared and that there is a feeling that society is not as safe as it used to be. There is a terrible feeling of loss and disappointment to both native Dutch people and the incoming immigrant.
2. We must lay out a prospect for the future. Ploumen said that integration demands most from the new comers. She called on new comers to adjust to their new country whilst bringing their own values and beliefs. The newcomer should take the first step, however.
3. Renew the Dutch tradition of tolerance by bringing people together, enforcing the rule of law to everyone and have a dialogue with people from different sets of beliefs to try and understand them.
Sunder Katwala who recently left the Fabian Society announced that he would be Director of the newly established group, British Future. The mission of the group is to deepen the public conversation around identity, immigration, integration and fairness. The group will launch later in 2011.
Katwala said that a good slogan for Social Democrats should be ‘Tough on extremism, tough on the causes of extremism.’ To uphold this, Katwala said that we need to recognise the consequences of immigration, but to not exaggerate them. He said in order to combat them, we need to link extremisms, both those of the native population and those of the immigrants.
Katwala called for more public discussion and engagement on the issue as people feel that they cannot speak and are afraid of being called a racist. It is also important, according to Katwala, to differentiate the concerns of what can and cannot be addressed and engage with reasonable sceptics.
He believes that border control is not a simple answer to the issue and that immigration is a two-way street with learning the English language as essential for immigrants. He said that the Labour Party has been ambivalent in this debate.
Finally, Katwala wanted to make the case for politics being of collective decisions and discussions. People would therefore need to make trade-offs. Katwala also called for more leadership from think-tanks on the issue and for politicians to stop making promises that they cannot keep, such as the renegotiation of the free movement of labour.
Following the discussion, a questions and answer session followed, moderated by Olaf Cramme. Questions and topics discussed included:
the exploitation of newcomers in rental arrangements, employment and entitlements;
- the exploitation of newcomers in rental arrangements, employment and entitlements;
- structural discrimination (such as white male privileges);
- multiculturalism vs integration;
- the need to use democracy as tool to this issue;
- huge inequalities when it comes to race;
- the need to argue for a social Europe, not lining up with the right to stop European integration;
- the use of European level regulation (such as the Posted Worker Directive);
- the need for politicians to say what they believe, consistently;
- the difficulty of attracting eastern European immigrants into politics in the UK;
The debate was also joined by Victor Ponta, leader of the Social Democrats in Romania, who discussed the topic of brain drain in his country, with many of his smartest citizens leaving Romania looking for a better life abroad. He said that immigrants are simply looking for a better life.