I’m not sure that anyone knows any more what Labour’s position is as a party on immigration and freedom of movement. It’s one of the few things on which Corbyn has actually been fairly clear and consistent; his argument that treating it as a numbers game is a silly approach is one with which I concur. I also agree with him that tackling the way in which unscrupulous employers exploit migrants, and find ways of paying them less than the minimum wage would be likely to reduce immigration numbers in itself. (Although I disagree with his apparent belief that controlling numbers of immigrants is a reason for doing that – I think ending exploitation is a sufficient justification in itself.)
But he’s regularly being undermined by Labour MPs who are so afraid of losing votes and seats that they are using UKIP language and policies themselves. And as we’ve seen this week, some are desperately keen to ‘bounce’ him into changing his position. In the process, of course, they strengthen the narrative that immigration ‘needs’ to be controlled. But what has struck me is the extent to which Corbyn’s almost honourable stance on the issue has been described as vague and unclear, because he refuses to say what he will do to reduce immigration as a result of rejecting the whole premise of the question.
It’s a classic example of the Overton window in operation, and the media – including the so-called impartial BBC – are restricting debate to a narrow band rather than accepting that there are opinions which lie outside it. So, as far as those questioning Corbyn are concerned, immigration is a problem, it needs to be reduced and because he won’t say how or by how many he will reduce it, he’s being vague or evasive. It isn’t that Corbyn hasn’t tried very hard to be clear and consistent; it’s rather that his views don’t fall within the narrow window in which debate is currently ‘allowed’ to take place.
I’m sure that the UKIP/Tory/Labour mainstream/media consensus is more than happy to exclude any views which don’t fit their own preconceptions, but it doesn’t make for a debate in which the question is properly and rationally considered. If only those who agree that immigration is a problem are to be given any credibility, no real alternatives will ever be heard. And that, in turn, strengthens the boundaries of the window. No surprise that immigration ends up being seen as a ‘problem’ even where in those areas where there is none.Sticking with the Labour Party and immigration, I was well and truly gobsmacked listening to Kinnock Junior pontificating on the matter on the BBC on Tuesday. He sat there, as a representative of the Labour Party – the self-proclaimed party of working people - arguing for a two-tier approach to the issue under which the high-paid would have complete freedom of movement whilst the lower orders would be subject to restrictions and quotas. When Nye Bevan said that nothing was too good for the working class, he didn’t add a list of exceptions, or talk about a two-tier system of access to privileges; but his successors clearly believe that there are some things to which mere oiks should not aspire. Still, it’s a timely reminder to those who keep banging on about a ‘progressive’ alliance of just what ‘progressive’ means to the twenty-first century Labour Party.