Oct 9, 2016 · 6 min read

The N Words

I didn’t like David Cameron or his politics, but I never felt a genuine sense of disdain for the man. I think he was a person with a moral core, and I felt I understood what he was trying to achieve and why, even if I disagreed with it. I just find Theresa May as bewildering as I do upsetting. Her politics seem to have no clear ideology or hinterland, just a cobbled together broluch of reheated nostalgia and emergent nativism.

They want to have foreign students only go to 'quality' universities. Because higher education was better when fewer students went to ‘proper universities, not jumped polys of course.’ They want to reintroduce selection because 'it worked for me.’ They want firms to list foreign workers, and they don’t want foreign academics giving the government ‘foreign’ advice and ‘foreign’ ideas. Things were just better back then weren’t they?

Ah, but Theresa May also acknowledged problems with capitalism, so she is a centrist you see. She shares a few vague policy positions with Ed Miliband, so she has planted her tanks on the social democratic lawn. If you want to make life fairer for people, but as long as they aren’t newcomers or immigrants, then frankly you’re not on my grass.

It would have been good if moderate parts of the Labour Party were in a position to push back on this. They’re not of course. The likes of Chuka Ummuna and Rachel Reeves have already sold the jerseys on immigration.

Now, I understand that Rachel Reeves is a genuinely hard working local MP who is speaking to discontented and frustrated people on a weekly basis. I understand that I’m an indulged wanker who lives a gilded existence in a metropolitan and cosmopolitan bubble. Thing is, I’m still right and she is still wrong.

People are angry in Leeds, and they have good reasons to be angry. They should be angry about an education system that failed them. They should be angry about an economy that provides too few decent jobs. They should be angry about local public services that are fraying at the seams. And yet none of this is the fault of the young Portuguese migrant working at Costa Coffee. EU Nationals who contribute more to the tax base, than they extract in services are not to blame for Britain’s difficulties. We have problems, but this is a misdiagnosis.

So if we do what the voters are asking Rachel Reeves to do and end free movement, and pull back on immigration more widely what will happen? We will be impoverished as a country. We will poorer socially, culturally and economically. We won’t shorten queues for the NHS, or create more jobs in Leeds. Those voters will still be angry, because their lives will be no better, they will be no happier, and we will have reduced our capacity to actually do something about it.

Listening to people is not the same as agreeing with them. Capitulation is not dialogue. Yes, we have to actually hear their concerns. No, we can’t just glibly call them racists, in the newspapers or on the doorsteps. There are communities across the UK where as Frost wrote people have “nothing to look backward to with pride,. And nothing to look forward to with hope.” Those people will not be given hope, or their lives made better however, by public policy that makes them poorer.

Labour’s record on immigration in recent years has been a chronicle of timidity and cowardice. There are winners of 'The Voice' with more prominence than pro-immigration voices from the Labour Party. But there is no time left, and there is nowhere left to go. We can have no more British jobs for British workers, and no more coffee mugs as a substitute for leadership.

My conception of the common good is about more than just redistributing wealth and power, as important as that is. An equal society is not the good society, unless it is also tolerant, diverse and free. My politics are about standing up for those who cannot fully stand up for themselves, and that means fighting for the struggling family born and raised in Leeds, and the Portuguese being vilified for working in Costa. If the Labour Party cannot do both, I want no part of the Labour Party.

We’re entering a period where we need to think very carefully about where we invest our campaigning energies. This week, some in Scottish Labour have sung the same song about Nationalism that we have for the last decade. Never have the lyrics felt more tired, or the tune more grating.

Since the Brexit vote, Nicola Sturgeon has consistently said that EU Nationals are valued in our country. She leads a party that has been overwhelmingly pro-EU and pro-immigration in recent times. It has an Asian Scot in the Scottish Government cabinet, and an Australian born MP in the House of Commons. If the difference between this party, and a party that wants to compel companies to list foreign workers, isn’t manifestly clear in Ultra HD to someone, then I don’t know what to say to them. Nicola Strugeon is not Theresa May, and she is definitely not Victor Orban. All Nationalism is not the same. All Nationalists are not the same.

Yet sadly, Scottish Labour has engaged in Anti-Nationalism 101 for so long now, that we’re the political party that cried wolf. We’ve tried to define the likes of Nicola Sturgeon as a nasty, divisive nationalist for so long, that when the wolf actually turns up at the door, we’ve got nothing new or impactful to say to ward it away.

Now of course, there is xenophobia in the SNP, and of course we have racism in Scotland. We cannot be complacent. We’re not a pro-immigration society in Scotland, we are just less opposed to it than in England. Our politics are very different, but the underlying attitudes not nearly so much. Self congratulatory hashtags which allow us to bathe in the warm glow of our own moral superiority are likely to hinder the cause, not help it. But I have no interest in petty fights to be picked with the SNP on how we respond to Brexit. If our cause is stronger by working together, we should.

The Conservative Party Conference has confirmed after all that Brexit is about more than how we end our membership of the European Union. It is about whether we work together to embrace the future, or reach back for a sepia tinged folk memory of how things used to be. It is about whether we want to live in a society that values openness, diversity and tolerance, or not. I don’t know what we can do to stop this. The acidic pit in my stomach tells me that the die may have cast. I don’t know if I’ll be doing it as a member of the Labour Party for much longer.

The one notion that punctures my gloom like a shaft of light is what we can do on the little things. This summer wasn’t just the 50th anniversary of England winning the World Cup. It marked fifty years since Robert F Kennedy delivered his ‘Ripple of Hope’ speech in South Africa.

Since our vote on Brexit, I’ve made a conscious effort to properly look in the eye of anybody serving me my lunch, or handing over a Pint. I’ve tried to properly say thank you, and smile a little more. I’ve failed as much as I’ve succeeded I’m sure, but I’ve tried to be a little nicer, a little friendlier and a little more welcoming.

Maybe, just maybe, those small acts of kindness can act as ripples of hope. Maybe, just maybe, they can come together and build a current that will sweep down the walls being built across this country. I don’t know if it will work, but I know we have to try.


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