There are few more toxic accusations in British public life than that of racism.
To be accused of racism by anyone with a high profile and a media platform is the modern day equivalent of being tarred and feathered – the allegations stick indelibly in the public memory, impossible to scrub away, while everything you do subsequently will be viewed suspiciously through that ugly, distorting prism – “he may have only said X, but we all know he really means Y, because he’s a racist”.
Consequently, decent and honourable people should be damn sure of their facts before throwing the word “racist” around – it summons visceral recollections and images of real-life prejudice, discrimination, attacks and lynchings, murders and even genocides; the Jim Crow laws in America and the spectre of Enoch Powell in Britain.
Unfortunately, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, has once again demonstrated that he is neither honourable nor decent, using an interview with the Independent on Sunday as a free opportunity to throw some more mud at UKIP ahead of polling day next week:
Now, “fully black” may be a clunky turn of phrase, but the meaning is self-evidently clear, and it contains no connotations of racism or blatant racial insensitivity. Many people might talk about themselves being “half-Irish” or “quarter German” or “mixed Asian” without arousing similar suspicions of race hatred.
Any reasonable interpretation of Nigel Farage’s remarks will lead to the conclusion that the UKIP leader was simply trying to find the quickest way possible to use immigration spokesman Steven Woolfe’s complex ethnic background as an example, and stumbled on an awkward turn of phrase in the process – nothing more.
And if further evidence was needed that Labour and much of the left are more obsessed with policing the words we use rather than considering the content of a person’s character, note that Chuka Umunna has no problem with Labour’s controversial immigration pledge campaign mug, which calls for the very same goal – controls on immigration – as UKIP. As always with these things, it’s only racist when the “wrong” people say it.
Umunna then tries hard to establish a non-existent parallel between the truly nasty, scapegoating racism of Britain’s past, and the more modern phenomena of anger with Britain’s broken immigration policy (or deficiencies in other areas, such as housing and education, that would make high annual net migration more sustainable):
Responding to these remarks [by Nigel Farage, about the UKIP Manifesto], Mr Umunna said: “I just think the guy’s got a problem with race. I’m just saying what I think. As a party they’ve got a problem with race. And I don’t think you can kick out racism from their party unless you have got a leadership which understands it and understands race in modern Britain.
“I have no truck with this notion that immigrants are to blame for all of the country’s problems. We saw people do that to black and Asian people like my father in the Sixties and Seventies, and now the group they’re trying to blame for all their problems are Eastern Europeans.”
Note the creation of a false, straw man argument – that immigrants are to blame for all of the country’s problems – for Umunna to demolish. Like or loathe UKIP, this simply isn’t the position of Nigel Farage’s party, which blames what they see as a broken immigration system – not evil immigrants – for placing a strain on public services and community cohesion.
Of course, it is in Labour’s interests to blur the distinction between concern about the immigration system and hatred of immigrants themselves. The Labour Party is increasingly owned and operated by a metropolitan upper middle-class who have prospered under the current system, and for whom high net inward migration means cheaper domestic help, lower-priced consumer goods and more vibrant neighbourhoods in the big cities where they tend to dwell. The free movement of people within the expanded European Union is working just fine, as far as they are concerned.
But Labour are supposed to be the party of the working man, the poor and the downtrodden. So how do they avoid the cognitive dissonance that results from claiming to speak for the poor and the marginalised while supporting the one policy that contributes most to downward pressure on wages, adds to the housing crisis and concerns so many of their normally loyal voters? The sad answer, of course, is that they seek to invalidate all of those feelings and concerns by labelling them “racist”.
Nigel Farage picked up on this thread in his own rebuttal to Chuka Umunna’s attack:
Working people have experienced at first-hand the wage compression, high youth unemployment, long housing waiting lists, struggle for school places, pressure on health services and loss of community cohesion ushered in by Labour’s open door approach.
Labour is now haemorrhaging votes to UKIP as its traditional supporters come to realise how out of touch its privileged metropolitan leadership is from the lives of working people.
So it is resorting to unwarranted slurs. I would urge all UKIP members and supporters to rise above the latest deplorable smears emanating from Mr Umunna. We only have to wait till polling day to get our own back.
He is playing the race card because he has no political argument left to make. There is nothing racist about wanting to control immigration and UKIP will continue to make the case for an Australian-style points system and for putting the interests of British people from every ethnic background first.
This blog happens to believe that high immigration can be a good thing, under the right circumstances. It quite likes the idea that the British population could exceed 70 million within a couple of decades, and overtake Germany as the number one economy in Europe – but only if it happens in the right way, and on the right terms.
For net migration to remain in the hundreds of thousands – and it will, for no matter what David Cameron says, he will not win any agreement on limiting the free movement of people within the EU – certain conditions must be met in order to make these large increases in population manageable.
We need a decent education system for all children – one which shoots for the top, not the middle.
We need viable pathways back into education and training for adults who lack the skills needed to succeed in the modern economy.
We need robust government support for transport and energy policy, so that Britain’s infrastructure remains fit for the future.
We need government to clear out of a whole host of other areas, tackling the shameful statistic that 52% of us are net beneficiaries of the state, taking out more in benefits and services than we contribute with our taxes.
And we need to relearn the importance of maintaining a strong national identity and inculcating a sense of Britishness among everyone who lives here, so that we can achieve an American-style melting pot where distinct ethnic and cultural identities are celebrated in the context of an overarching British identity, rather than a nation of distinct special interest groups and protected minorities, all jostling for position and favour.
None of these things are happening at the moment. But what’s worse is the fact that people who stand up in support of the final point too often find themselves being painted as racists or bigots for daring to speak their belief that the current immigration system is not working, and that multicultural Britain is not the happy, harmonious place that the left-wing idealists would have us believe.
As this blog commented during the storm over Labour’s immigration coffee mug:
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?
But the Labour Party has form when it comes to pressing the “nuclear button” of racism allegations, and there are few practitioners as skilled as the “rising star” Chuka Umunna, who could quite possibly be installed as the new party leader once Ed Miliband has finished running Labour into the ground.
In his defence, Umunna probably doesn’t believe what he says about UKIP truly being a “racist” party – but this only makes him wilfully deceptive, happy to smear other people’s reputations for personal political gain. And if Umunna does really believe his own alarmism, he is part of that great cohort of Britons too dim to understand the difference between advocating controls on immigration and gathering in white robes around a burning cross.
Either way, Chuka Umunna – smooth and polished though he may be – is far better suited for haranguing passers-by at Speakers’ Corner or trolling on news discussion forums, not distracting from Britain’s more serious, ideas-based political conversation with his cheap and tawdry race card tricks.