The Labour party is currently going through a substantive re-evaluation of what it stands for, with clashes between Jeremy Corbyn supporters and Blairites increasingly prevalent. However in order to fix Labour’s reputation in areas which cost them the election, namely immigration and economic credibility, more market based policy solutions may be the direction to go instead of skirting around the issue as per usual.
If we look at the data from the general election it shows that, on average, where UKIP and the Tories made small gains of less than 7%, Labour gained similar numbers. However when UKIP increased their vote by 14%+, the Tory vote shrunk by a smaller margin than the labour vote. The fact that the Tory vote fluctuated less than Labour when the UKIP numbers surged suggests that the swing was largely made up of disillusioned voters from the old left, perhaps indicating that the Labour party had neglected the working class’ concerns about immigration.
It’s easy to see why so many Labour voters defected to UKIP. In the run-up to the election, Nigel Farage consistently talked of how immigrants supposedly contribute to “wage compression” and the housing crisis. Yet how often do we hear his dubious arguments countered with reasoned pro-immigration arguments, rather than derided with rhetoric and slander to be discarded?
I am painfully aware that Russell Brand isn’t exactly the intellectual voice of the country (and God help us all if he ever becomes that), but his bout with Farage on Question time last December was a clear example of these arguments being ignored in a public setting. Brand’s response to Farage’s concerns that local communities are feeling the changes of immigration was to change the subject matter to the financial sector and to remark about his personal concern for Farage. This error was furthered by Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood who remarked that they were not going to “scapegoat” immigrants and shifted the attention yet again onto bankers. What was the disillusioned voter supposed to think? If you were even a tad worried about immigration the behaviour from UKIP’s opposition pointed towards their narrative that Westminster is not having a proper debate about immigration levels and that they don’t understand. They did Farage’s marketing job for him.
Instead of taking the smug moral high ground and assuming away the opposition, an easy way to ease fears about immigration without alienating the Guardianista left-liberals would be to talk about freeing up the housing market. Farage often mentioned that a sort of “demand side shock” from an increasing population puts upward price pressure on the housing stock, specifically in London, yet saying that prices respond to market forces also assumes that the supply has a pretty big say in the matter too. It doesn’t take a genius to retort that if supply was allowed to float more freely through relaxed planning laws and green belt building whilst criticising Osborne’s plan for a new housing bubble then the “immigrants make housing unaffordable” argument would be put to rest. Miliband would have calmed the public’s concerns of immigration and the pro-immigration progressive left would be left unmiffed. In addition, it’s not exactly a “stolen” idea; the green belt is Tory haven.
Moreover, as Anton Howes alludes to here, this isn’t a policy where Labour would have to face criticism as the party of tax and spend and abysmal economic records by unleashing a social housing project. By opposing Osborne’s housing policies (which inflate demand and reduce incentives to supply proper housing) with a sensible planning reform policy, Labour could have easily been seen as the party which took care of the less well off and the housing needs of the country without alienating immigration and economic sceptics.
It’s a big shame that very few of the main parties went to town on Farage concerning his arguments about the negative effect of too much immigration, despite the plethora of easy to understand literature out there which ridicules it. Other than a few half-hearted references to immigrants being net tax contributors nothing was really said about wages, housing or social cohesion, presumably because they didn’t really have an answer and thought demonising Farage for cheap political points would suffice. Well that may have worked out for people who were already convinced on the benefits of immigration and put off by UKIP’s tone, yet the swing vote was going to pick up on the mainstream’s treatment of the topic and inevitably it did.
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