Politics is about Leadership

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey published today shows 30% of British people say they would describe themselves as “very prejudiced/a little prejudiced against people of other races”.

The first point to make is that this is not the highest in thirty years – in 2011 it was 38%. But coming on top of UKIP’s victory in last week’s European Elections, it is seen as significant – and it is certainly higher than the percentage a the turn of the century (25% in both 2000 and 2001). But what should we do about it?

Personally, I am disappointed to find that so many people admit to prejudice – but not surprised. Nor do I think it would be sensible for the Labour Party to pander to this prejudice in an attempt to gain votes. I think we need to understand the root causes of prejudice and the much larger percentage of the population who are expressing concern about immigration – and tackle those underlying causes.

Those who are most likely to admit to prejudice are the least educated and in the lower-end of the employment market. In short, those who have been struggling most economically. The idea that you cannot get a job (or as well-paid a job as you would like) because someone else came and took it is easy to believe. The truth is more complex. Such people have been displaced in the labour market by foreigners – but mostly because manufacturing has shifted overseas rather than because the foreigners have come here. Our economy simply has far fewer unskilled and semi-skilled jobs than it used to – and those sections of the workforce have therefore been hit hard either by unemployment or by less choice of jobs and lower wages. Labour in government argued that we needed to upskill our workforce and pushed for 50% of our young people to go to university. I don’t think that policy was wrong (although we should have ensured a much stronger connection between what they studied and what jobs they could expect to secure) – but I do think we needed to do far more to plan a positive future for the other 50% than simply hoping that jobs will be freed up for them if the more able are better qualified.

Divisions within society between those who prosper and those who struggle are deep and have got worse. The well-off have got significantly better off, while the bottom half of society has got worse off. Under Blair and Brown action was taken to address these divides, most notably through tax credits which ensured that people were better off in work than staying on benefits and the introduction of the national minimum wage. But the gap grew wider and even with a buoyant economy too many people were “economically inactive” or struggling. Those who were already struggling were hit hardest by the recession. They have been hit again by the changes to benefits (which hit far more people in work than out of work), withdrawal of public services and squeeze on wages as the Government has admitted. The recovery was coming in 2010, then stopped as a result of Government policies. It is now slowly coming but shows every sign of once again helping the better off more than everyone else.

Would ending immigration solve these problems? There is little evidence to support this theory. For a start, there are almost as many people from the UK living elsewhere in the EU as there are EU nationals in the UK, so withdrawing from the EU would lead to two million people arriving on our shores. That would have a massively negative impact on the housing market, public services and the jobs market. We would lose the taxes paid by migrants (who on average pay far more into the public purse than they take out).

Secondly, we need to think about the kind of society we want. The fact that people weren’t allowed to leave Eastern Europe and travel to the West was seen as a huge issue thirty years ago – we revelled in our freedom and wanted the same for them. The common complaint from supporters of UKIP that “people come here who don’t understand our culture and don’t speak our language” is almost funny from a North Wales perspective as most of the people expressing this view are themselves recent migrants from England. Welsh speakers may be less likely to vote for UKIP, but many are even more vocal in expressing concern about their villages being “overwhelmed” at the same time as being concerned that their children “have no choice” but to move away to find work. I am convinced that the objective of “an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe” is correct – but it isn’t served by more and more decisions being taken out of reach of the people affected by them or by people being forced to leave the communities they want to be part of. The solution is not to end freedom of movement across the EU, but to address the underlying issues of financial security and unemployment across the EU – the very objective set out in the founding 1957 Treaty of Rome in which the participating Governments affirmed “as the essential objective of their efforts the constant improvement of the living and working conditions of their peoples”.

The fact that a third of the UK admits to prejudice is worrying – as is the fact that one in ten of the population voted for UKIP last week. But pandering to that prejudice isn’t showing leadership. Neither is promising a referendum on leaving the EU. I would be in favour of allowing citizens to promote referenda in the same way as British Columbia does – but I don’t see how Labour promoting a referendum on EU membership would help us. It hasn’t helped the Tories and there are many other issues of much greater important to people such as abolishing the bedroom tax. I don’t believe there are many people who want a referendum who don’t want to leave the EU. But there are many people who feel disengaged from politics and this is something we do need to tackle. It is not enough to do the right thing; we need to persuade people and take them with us. Important though they are, I don’t think constitutional issues or ensuring government at local, national and European level is better at public engagement will win the next election. Instead we need to focus on addressing the causes of the financial insecurity and ensure that both membership of the EU and continuing immigration are beneficial to the public. Does Labour now have the policies to do this? I think so. Ed Miliband has been arguing that we need to build our economy based not on a race to the bottom (low wages, low job security, low skills) as the Tories and UKIP believe, but a race to the top (high skills, quality jobs and enforcing minimum standards so that local workers are not undercut by migrants or by overseas competition). I thought Labour’s ten-Point Cost-Of-Living Contract was excellent. The big difference between Government and Opposition is that our policies aren’t actually being implemented. We know that the Tory/Lib Dem approach has made things worse for most people since 2010 – we need to persuade people that our alternative would be better and to vote for us to implement it.

Journalists asking Shadow Cabinet members whether we need to change our policies in light of the UKIP victory need to stop for a minute and ask whether the public were aware of our policies. By and large the answer was no – and journalists need to think about how they help inform the public about all parties’ policies instead of commenting on politics as if it is simply a race where we are observers rather than participants.

It is a salient fact that Labour actually secured the support of more people than ever before in European elections fought under this system:

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A year after 3.7m people voted Labour in the 2004 European election, 9.5m voted Labour in a General Election, securing our victory. The challenge over the next year is clear. Where will we find these voters? Primarily among those who didn’t vote last week. That requires conversations more than leaflets or speeches – people willing to talk to their fellow citizens.

How will you play your part?

What do you think?

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