To mark the official start of the 2015 general election short campaign, the Labour Party celebrated by offering their supporters a commemorative coffee mug with Adolf Hitler’s face adorning one side, and quotes from Mein Kampf on the other. Or so one might be forgiven for thinking, judging by the pant-wettingly hysterical reaction of some left-wingers to Labour’s latest piece of campaign merchandise.
In reality, what happened was that the Labour Party released some campaign trinkets based on their “five pledges” outlining what they would do in government. The offensive mugs make reference to the fourth of these pledges:
CONTROLS ON IMMIGRATION: People who come here won’t be able to claim benefits for at least two years, and we will introduce fair rules making it illegal for employers to undercut wages by exploiting workers.
Diane Abbott, the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and a former Labour leadership hopeful, tweeted a picture of the mug on Sunday afternoon with the words: “This shameful mug is an embarrassment. But the real problem is that immigration controls are one of our five pledges at all.”
Her tweet prompted a barrage of criticism against Labour on Twitter, with the Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert writing: “Wow. The stories are true. Labour have actually produced a campaign mug championing ‘Controls on immigration’.”
Owen Jones also felt the need to get in on the action, though one cannot disagree with his wider point that the Labour Party (and the others) would be better offering some hope, or a positive vision backed up by tangible policies:
Of course, nobody in their right mind will vote for Labour with the serious expectation that an Ed Miliband government would either reduce immigration or secure the border – the Labour Party has thirteen recent years in government and a continuing commitment to Britain’s membership of the EU to stack against their newfound interest in immigration control. So from a purely tactical perspective, the mug was a mistake – unlikely to win back any support from wavering Conservative/UKIP voters but guaranteed to irritate the party faithful.
But it is not just the campaign tactics which are wrong. The actual policy behind Labour’s slogan – taking action to prevent exploitation of migrant workers – may be vaguely noble, but it would do nothing substantial to control immigration. Dan Hodges made this very point when he lambasted Ed Miliband’s immigration policy shambles in his Telegraph column last December:
In what was billed as a “major immigration speech” Miliband spoke for just seven minutes. The only proposal he proffered – unless I blinked and missed it – was that bosses who exploited migrant workers would be jailed.
What counted as “exploitation” in this context wasn’t explained. But we already have minimum wage legislation. We already have laws against human trafficking and “modern slavery”. We already have health and safety regulation.
Perhaps Miliband is going to toughen up on this. Who knows? But this we do know – his proposal will do nothing to stop immigration into the UK. He could have spoken for 700 minutes. If that was his solution, it was a meaningless one.
The overwhelming majority of migrant workers into the UK are not being exploited. Go into a Starbucks. Go into a Costa. A large proportion of the staff will be EU migrants. They are not chained to the toasting machine. They will not be turning tricks in the basement. There is no need for them to. There are plenty of jobs for them, they have the skills to work here, and the have the legal right to work here.
Today Miliband did the worse thing any mainstream politician can do on immigration. He talked up the problem, and then failed to provide anything that comes close to resembling a coherent solution.
But even if Labour could be taken at their word on immigration – and they can’t – we have reached a bad place in British politics when the lions share of backbench anger and media attention focuses on the issuing of a campaign mug rather than the announcement of the “policy” itself, which occurred some months previously, as Spiked Magazine points out:
If you want to see how shallow political debate in Britain has become, look no further than mug-gate. Over the weekend, the internet – well, the media-obsessed Twits of the Twitterati, who clearly have nothing better to do of a weekend – went into meltdown over the revelation that Labour is selling mugs that say ‘Controls on immigration… I’m voting Labour’. It’s a pledge mug, and there are five in total – Labour having only five pledges in the run-up to the General Election, because apparently the public can’t handle anything more complex than five snazzy one-liners outlining some eye-wateringly unambitious policies. Labour-supporting media people were mortified by the immigration mug. The left-ish (very ish) press was shocked. The mug was branded ‘unspeakably naff’ and ‘outright racist at worst’. All of which raises a question: where was the outrage when, er, Labour actually unveiled its immigration-control policy, weeks ago?
Labour’s pledge on immigration makes for depressing reading for anyone – like spiked – who believes in freedom of movement and an open-border approach to those who want to travel the world in search of work, a home, a life. It takes a dispiriting bank managers’ approach to the great upheavals of humanity that have motored migration and transformed the world for centuries. Labour says it will make sure immigration is ‘properly controlled and managed’. It has devoted itself to ‘controlling immigration and controlling its impacts on local communities’. And it plans to do this by enforcing ‘stronger border controls’, devoting greater police resources to smashing ‘illegal immigration’, and always distinguishing between good migrants and bad ones – ensuring Britain gets ‘the top talent… while controlling low-skilled migration’. Rough translation? Well-educated Europeans are welcome, but those horny-handed labourers from darker continents can piss off. You thought the mug was racist? Try reading the actual pledge.
And here’s the problem: even those people (like Spiked Magazine’s Brendan O’Neill) who believe that the Labour Party’s immigration pledge and campaign mug are misguided and bad policy still tend to fall in to the trap of seeing the mug as somehow offensive, and even racist.
In fact, a friend asked me today whether I had seen the news story about “Labour’s racist coffee mug”. At which point I thought: wow, we really need to be a lot more careful with the words that we use.
Imagine you are a voter who is sceptical of the EU and (rightly or wrongly) believes immigration into Britain has been too high, and too costly – maybe someone who typically votes Conservative, but is toying with UKIP this time around. What effect will it have to see politicians and commentators up and down the land denouncing a porcelain mug that chimes with their own sentiments, simply because it bears the words “controls on immigration”?
Yes, it is a fact that racists will almost by definition be against immigration – that much is a given. But it is not the case that most – or even many – people who want to reduce immigration are racist.
Many people in Britain will agree with the sentiment printed on the Labour Party’s campaign mug, the majority of whom in fact are not racist and do not deserve to be told by elected politicians that their views are so abhorrent, so far out of the mainstream, that they are “shameful”. Everyone likes to win political arguments, but for the sake of our democracy and just for plain old decency, the left really must train themselves to stop reaching for the nuclear option of calling someone a racist when they happen to disagree on immigration.
For the danger is that people who question unlimited immigration and see their political values being painted as racist or xenophobic will either get angry and be tempted to support hard-line parties with truly extreme views (such as Britain First or the BNP) because reputationally they have little left to lose, or quietly stop participating in the political conversation altogether, feeling ashamed of their views and resentful of those who publicly slandered them. In neither case is the intelligence of our political discourse or the health of our democracy improved.
Labour’s immigration campaign mug is a good example of confused messaging and terrible policymaking, but the sentiment it expresses is not racist, and neither are the majority of the people who happen to agree with it.
Do the British left really want to win the 2015 general election by beating their opponents into cowed silence with shrill accusations of racism, and the purging of anyone who questions the open border status quo from the acceptable mainstream of British politics?
The storm in Labour’s campaign coffee mug suggests that yes, they do.