A. Sivanandan, known for his trenchant critiques of government ‘race’ policies, has broadly welcomed what Ed Miliband had to say last week. IRR News asks him why.
What’s new about the Miliband speech? It seems to carry many of the same old themes – need to curtail immigration, need to integrate and so on.
It is a departure from everything we’ve had before from any of the parties – though on the face of it, it may seem a regurgitation of old themes. First he says quite clearly that he is not opposed to multiculturalism in the sense we at the IRR defined it: unity in diversity, interculturalism and not cultural enclaves, (he is against what I have termed culturalism/ethnicism). ‘It is about our unity as a country and our diversity’, were his exact words. Second, such an approach to multiculturalism is, as we have always argued, the cornerstone of integration. ‘One nation does not mean one identity, people can be proudly, patriotically British without abandoning their cultural roots.’ He specifically denies that ‘we need assimilation’, ie ‘one identity: the same for all of us’. Hence integration for Miliband, as for us, is a process, but we have, he says, to take steps to enable it to happen, and learning English is one of them – which is commonsense. And tackling ‘the realities of segregation in communities that were struggling to cope’ is another. He also argues in favour of citizenship ceremonies – something I don’t subscribe to, but I expect the British need their pomp and circumstance. Where he falls down is not seeing the need to dismantle racism as part of integration, which is a two-way process.
But isn’t he fundamentally back to the immigration numbers game and thus playing the race card yet again?
When we talk about immigration and immigration controls, it’s important to distinguish between the main variants and how each affects a particular section of society. Immigration from the EU, for instance, which can only be tempered and cannot be that fundamentally restricted (because of the free movement of labour), affects the indigenous skilled and semi-skilled working class directly – in terms of competition over work, pressure on school places, etc. The immigration from the rest of the world, including the Commonwealth/Third World is now pretty well already restricted and only the skilled and professional can come in to jobs under ‘managed migration’ – and they won’t have ‘recourse to public funds’, though to school places. The third category, which cuts across the second, would include international students, those coming for family reunion and those seeking asylum. Again, there are restrictions on their right to work and their recourse to public funds. Look in particular at the withdrawal of benefits etc from failed asylum seekers. The last category would be those forced by immigration laws and asylum restriction into illegality – failed asylum seekers, students and others who overstay, those who enter clandestinely. They have no rights at all and are forced to eke out an existence, working below the minimum wage, living in sheds etc – ‘the lowest of the low’.
What the Tories and rightwing do – with scare stories about mass migrations the size of so many football pitches or the size of Birmingham – is to collapse all these categories into one bag and call it immigration – tar everyone with the same brush. Or, to change the metaphor, they put their dirty linen in one wash and allow the colour to run. The rightwing talks about race under cover of immigration. Miliband is talking about immigration not race. And unless we make that distinction, UKIP and its ilk will continue to cheat the public by claiming Miliband’s position as their own.
Surely this is just pragmatism. Instead of kow-towing, like Brown and Blair to Middle England, he is trying to win back the working class in places like Barking and Rotherham, where the voting base has been shown to be in danger of going over to the Right?
First, he is clearly trying to distinguish his policies from those of New Labour, which, under Blair and also Brown, played to the market. They wanted to cheapen labour so as to help entrepreneurs. In the old parlance, the bosses got the profit, the (native, British) workers paid the price. Miliband addresses the issue of numbers and the need to limit immigration, because immigration at a time of unemployment brings down wages and helps the employer and not the worker – which is why the concept of a living wage is such an important one.
Second, the working class has been besieged and battered by the policies of this government and mass unemployment and the politics of a thousand cuts have bred an underclass and locked it there with a culture of demonisation that defines them as parasites of society. It is that kind of economic segregation that still needs to be addressed. And even if Miliband’s policies may appear to be election-oriented, they are still a first step towards an organic (as opposed to a contrived) social cohesion.
What he still lacks, as I said before, is a coherent policy on outlawing racism (the Equality Commission is a gigantic con) without which there can be no integration. In particular he will have to address the problems of Islamophobia and racial violence. And the outlawing of racism is also important to stop the far Right from using Miliband’s policies on immigration as grist to its fascist mill.
Are you saying that Miliband is returning a discussion of ‘race’ to one of class?
Yes and no. He has taken race out of immigration and made it a class question and that is a massive step. But that is only one half of the project. The other half, its counterpart, integration, will have to address racism and Islamophobia if it is to work at all.
Read an IRR News story: ‘Fighting anti-Muslim racism: an interview with A. Sivanandan‘
Read an IRR News story: ‘The violence of the violated‘
Read an IRR News story: ‘Fallacies and policies: the ‘Fear and Hope’ report‘