How the right hijacked immigration (and how to deal with it)

11:45 am - April 20th 2010

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contribution by Adam Ramsay

I have spent the last 2 weekends canvassing council estates. As you find in lots of places, many people, when asked to list their main worries, include “immigration”.

Immigration is an extraordinarily abstract consept in this context. Almost every other answer you get is either local (that wall there is crumbling) or national but directly material (my son can’t find a job because of the recession) or general anger over expenses. No one has ever told me that they’re worried about the defecit, or about the mobility of global capital, or about the ageing population.

So why do people worry about the mobility of labour, but not of capital?

We might think it’s because they see people moving in near them, and so have direct experience of it. But from my time canvassing, anecdotal evidence from friends, and the only studies I’ve seen, worry about immigration is much more prevelent in areas which haven’t experienced much of it (in all four days canvassing, I only met 2 people who were BME).

So why are people worried about immigration? Well, I’ve taken up asking. There are, essentially three answers. Some people say something like “there are just too many of them”. I don’t have much to say about that.

But most people say either “jobs” or “not enough council housing”. With these people, it is very easy to turn the conversation into anger with either Thatcher for introducing “right to buy” without investing in new stock, or with bankers & the politicians who handed the economy to them. It’s usualy easy enough to sway them with support for restricting right to buy, and investment in job creation.

That the right have managed to take the macro-economic factor of labour mobility and convince millions that it’s to blame for their day to day problems is as extraordinary as it is scary. But every time Labour (or even, in the recent debate and to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems) accept this premise but concede they won’t deal with the ‘problem’ as aggressively, they drive people to the arms of racists.

So by talking about ‘getting tough on immigration’, Labour can never win.

All they do is confirm the slightly odd belief that it is to blame for people’s day to day problems. If you then tell these people that they are racist, they will, ultimately, conclude “well, ok, I’m racist then”. People are not naturally racist.

But if they believe that the presence of a particular group of people is what has caused their day to day problems, then they will start to dislike those people.

This is a big problem. By repeating the word ‘immigration’ ad nausiam, the right has persuaded ordinary people that they represent their material interests. Every time Labour pander to it, they hand over this debate. Labour can either tell people that this is an accurate macro-economic analysis, but that they are too wet and liberal to do what’s needed to solve it.

Or they can tell them, in clear terms, what they will do to deal with the genuine problems of unemployment and housing shortage, and explain, in clear terms, how the right genuinely are proposing policies which hit working class people hardest.

My surprise over the last few weeks is being reminded quite how easy the latter is. But unfortunately Labour are obsessed with triangulating into the same neo-liberalism that is to blame for these problems. And so seem unwilling to do it.

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Reader comments

1. alienfromzog

Excellent analysis.

It does frustrate me that the Labour government has been running away from itself on this issue for at least the past decade.

However there is one slight mitigation that ought to be said. The media landscape is so ridiculously skewed to the right on this issue (even more than all the others). That it is extremely difficult for a Labour government to be heard when it says anything different to the all-pervasive preconception.

Of course, apart from in a very small way, they haven’t really tried.

Anyone who cares about fairness and especially that we as a nation treat asylum seekers fleeing persecution as human beings (note how the media confuses these two issues so often) probably needs to vote Labour. This is because I have no doubt that the Tories will be much worse. My great frustration is that to say the Labour government ‘aren’t as bad as the Tories would be’ whilst true, is hardly a ringing endorsement.


Hmm. the IPPR report concluded that:

“Our findings suggest that areas that have higher levels of recent immigration than others are not more likely to vote for the BNP. In fact, the more immigration an area has experienced, the lower its support for the far right. It seems that direct contact with migrants dissuades people from supporting the BNP.”

So logically the way to fight the BNP is to flood areas that vote for it with immigrants

Great post!

And of course, exactly the same thing is thought of single parents because of the failure to provide adequate levels of social housing.

Excellent post and nice to see something written based on field work and analysis, actually getting out there.

5. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

So why do people worry about the mobility of labour, but not of capital?

As soon as you distinguish between factors of production you’ve given up the ghost, it’s not pick ‘n mix.


#1 Just to say that, yes, I agree that the right wing media is never going to accept that immigrants aren’t to blame, because that risks admitting that their paymasters – or policies which benefit them – are. However, if we are too scared to give a progressive economic analysis because Rupert Murdoch doesn’t like it, then frankly, what are we all doing here? What is the point of progressive politics/activism? I’d rather go and climb a hill/sit on a beech.



I heard a piece on Radio 4 where they spoke to 2 sets of people. One in the South West where there is 0 immigration and one set in Bristol which has much higher levels.

What is (un)surprising is that the people in the south west had the most complaints – but most of them came from newspapers – they didn’t actually have any physical or relevant complaints about immigration, it was all “well they are coming over here getting council houses etc” – even though there isn’t an immigrant for miles!

What happens is when crisis occurs people look for someone to blame – and those who can be easily identified are the most obvious (skin colour is a favourite)

However the analysis is that these people who attack immigrants are basically cowards. We all know who is the exploiter in this system, we all know that it’s wrong for people to earn without working – and yet these people are adored by our ‘pop idol’ celebrity public.

Well only cowards adore the hand that forces them to eat bread – the rest of us are preparing to rise up and destroy the fuedal Lords who control our lives.

8. Simon Pollock

Its a shocker alright, people with little experience of inward migration to their area see what happens elsewhere via the media and decide they would prefer not to take part in the fun. Come election time they express opposition to their political reps in the vain hope they will prevent inward migration (some hope eh?).

Meanwhile people who live in areas that do see inward migration either resolve to grin and bear it, or move out to areas that are not experiencing inward migration.The phenomena of ‘white flight’.

IPPR really sh1t the bed on this one, its just fodder to the converted.

I have questions like this when doorstepping for the Greens too – although certainly not here in left wing Hackney.

The chap seemed to be labouring under the impression that working people born abroad don’t pay tax in the UK.

Turned the conversation around to tax dodging by the super rich. He seemed satisfied.

10. Flowerpower

As usual, the Left misses the point.

People’s disgruntlement about immigration is chiefly cultural, not economic.

When you see the area you were born and grew up in change out of all recognition – the old shops close, the boozer boarded up, people wearing outlandish costumes in the street, the street scene redolent of Karachi or Islamabad rather than the English town you used to know – there’s bound to be a feeling of it all having gone a bit too far. The ideological insistence by the Left that this willful destruction of traditional English communities is all GOOD and must be CELEBRATED is what is perhaps most galling. It is tantamount to saying that there was nothing special or of value in national life or to be cherished about an English or British ethnic identity.

No one wants to repatriate immigrants or make enemies of them (well, okay, the BNP do – but they’re Nazi nutters). What most people want is just a simple recognition that change has not been !00% good – and that real sacrifices have been made to accommodate people from far away places. A bit of gratitude on the part of incomers would go down well too.

A bit more integration would help. A bit more tact and good manners. And a lot less preaching and posturing by Leftists. We are a pretty tolerant country on the whole, but the Left have a vested interest in portraying us a bunch of frothing racists. And Leftist multiculturalism operates a double standard: anything alien (even female genital mutilation) is okay; anything native to these islands is bad. No wonder people complain on the doorsteps.

Flowerpower, where is this drastic change for the worse happening?

I don’t think anyone in seriousness feels that local culture and society should be allowed to die out, much less purposefully extinguished. And anyone who feels that cultural sensitivities should be used to excuse domestic abuse and FGM is, quite frankly, an idiot.

@10 flowerpower

I agree with leynos. I for one don’t really recognise the picture you paint of the “left” and it’s role in preaching and posturing. People were saying the same about the East End when Jewish immigration was at it’s peak. Your characterisation (or should we really just be honest and call it your cariacaturisation?) is just so wrong headed.

I’ve never heard people say there were NO problems attendant on immigration, or that it was 100% good. You want them to be grateful? I know quite a few, and they are all grateful… but the (rather worrying) sub-text is that they really ought to know their place, keep their heads down, be “more like us”.. maybe just be a bit less, well…coffee-coloured or foreign.

Please note that I’m not accusing you of holding such views, or being a “frothing racist”; but we all know there are plenty who are, or at least don’t have the gumption to know better than be a fellow-traveller. If (as you state) there are any on the loonie left who support female genital mutilation because it’s alien and therefore OK, they obviously need some serious counselling.. tho I’ve never heard or seen them argue the point.

Yes, of course people complain. Yes, of course there will be issues and conflicts and bad feeling. It’s interesting however that oftentimes those complaining the loudest are those with the least direct experience of multicultural areas. They are the kind who uncritically swallow any old Daily Mail or BNP tosh about “immigrant scroungers” stealing their jobs / council houses / women.

It’s not a sin to be an ill-educated, ill-informed Little Englander – it is a sin to be proud of it.

Leynos and Galen10:

Have no fear, flowerpower is seemingly on day release and is leaving his prejudiced comments left, right and centre.


What most people want is just a simple recognition that change has not been !00% good

What would you say if it was 97% good? Or 89% good?

Would you be as bitter then?


That reminds of The Day Today.

16. the a&e charge nurse

I think immigration represents fear of the unknown – a corollary being the rapid and unprecedented rise in population.

Some might have seen the recent BBC prog, “Is Britain full” – needless to say immigration was associated with many of the concerns about increased demand and expectation placed on public services despite the inevitability of dwindling resources/cut backs, etc, not to mention dire projections for the housing market and future job prospects (should the population tip 70 million).

For example, “The Department of Health has been told the NHS in England will need to slash its workforce by 137,000 if it is to achieve its planned £20bn savings by 2014”,

I suspect similar patterns might play out across other public sector services as well?

the a&e charge nurse:

Fear of the unknown indeed, if you want an insight into the hellish mindset, check out the BNP thread and how that is drowning under the comments of those fearful people.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Immigration Tips

    Liberal Conspiracy » How the right hijacked immigration (and how …: Immigration is an extraordinarily abstract c…

  2. law

    "Liberal Conspiracy » How the right hijacked immigration (and how …" #immigration

  3. sunny hundal

    How the right hijacked immigration (and how to deal with it) – excellent blog by @adamramsay

  4. Ryan Bestford

    How the right hijacked immigration (and how to deal with it) by @AdamRamsay – (via @LibCon)

  5. AdamRamsay

    my latest post on @libcon: How the right hijacked immigration (and how to deal with it)

  6. Matt P.

    Mind the sentiment, not the spelling, & this is a interesting take on Labour's failure to deal w the immigration issue

  7. links for 2010-04-20 « Embololalia

    […] Liberal Conspiracy » How the right hijacked immigration (and how to deal with it) So why are people worried about immigration? Well, I’ve taken up asking. There are, essentially three answers. Some people say something like “there are just too many of them”. I don’t have much to say about that. […]

  8. Liberal Conspiracy: Handing immigration to the right « Talk Issues

    […] Ramsay has a good analysis on Liberal Conspiracy of how the right has hijacked immigration and some suggestions on how Labour can change the narrative. Adam has been canvassing council […]

  9. sunny hundal

    @anthonypainter pleasure. also, on tackling immigration and taking issue from the right, see this piece:

  10. sunny hundal

    @msgracefh problem is he runs away from immigration instead of standing ground. This is why left keeps losing on it:

  11. sunny hundal

    Selling a positive message on immigration on doorsteps / every Labourite should read (by @AdamRamsay)

  12. Chris Paul

    RT @sunny_hundal: Selling a positive message on immigration on doorsteps / every Labourite should read (by @AdamRamsay)

  13. LiberalLabour

    RT @sunny_hundal: Selling a positive message on immigration on doorsteps / every Labourite should read (by @AdamRamsay)

  14. Tom O'Shea

    Adam Ramsay at Liberal Conspiracy: 'How the right hijacked immigration (and how to deal with it)' —

  15. AdamRamsay

    Thanks to @EmmaLiddell3 & @sunny_hundal for posting my pre-election piece on immigration again:

  16. sunny hundal

    @greglovelluk here's how you sell a positive message on immigration on the doorstep: @msgracefh

  17. Emma Liddell

    RT @sunny_hundal Selling a positive message on immigration on doorsteps / every Labourite should read (by @AdamRamsay)

  18. James

    RT @sunny_hundal: Selling a positive message on immigration on doorsteps / every Labourite should read (by @AdamRamsay)

  19. hannahnicklin

    This is good:

  20. Becky Walker

    RT @hannahnicklin: This is good:

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