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Stay, Stay, Stay: Why Failing to Make a Positive Case for Immigration - Or for Anything Very Much - Is Bad for Mainstream Politics

10/06/2016 14:57

Watching the 10 O'clock News last night I experienced an unexpected emotion: a feeling of extreme sympathy for Roland Rudd. The PR maestro had been dispatched by the BBC to Wolverhampton to take the temperature of the hordes of Brexit fans apparently marauding willy nilly through that unloved Midlands town. When he eventually tracked down a group in a pub talk turned inevitably to immigration, and Roland was treated to the classic Brexiteering refrain, along these lines: "We're being swamped. No, I'm not really affected myself, but my kids can't buy a house. It's terrible."

Roland, to his credit, resisted telling his new friend to piss off, but I can't help it. Piss off - you are trotting out non sequiturs, you are a little bit objectionable, and you are wrong. In fairness it's not really your fault. In the face of relentless, remorseless, propaganda from various political factions and large sections of our media, and without access to any real facts, what other view are you going to form than that we are in the depths of a Very Serious Immigration Crisis? And once you've formed that view of course you'll think it's the #1 thing to raise when an expensive-looking PR guy buys you a pint in your local.

Now, I don't really blame ‎the Leave lobby for misleading people about immigration. All's fair in the heat of a referendum campaign, and this is their strongest card. (NB I am only saying this for the purposes of this argument; I do blame them, some of what has been said or implied is shameful, and the people saying it should think long and hard about the impact on community relations and our standing in the world. And also about their moral compass, however limited that might be). But what is unforgiveable is the stance taken on this issue by more moderate politicians on the Remain side - or simply those in the Centre and on the Left of politics. They are failing now, just as they have failed for years, to counter some of the nonsense peddled about immigration, let alone make a positive case for it. Little wonder then that the poisonous seeds of Nigel Farage and his ilk fall on such fertile ground.

‎I'm not in this blog going to run through all of the many arguments in favour of immigration, and against the lies told about this issue - there are plenty of people better qualified than me to do so. But in passing I'd point to the fact that our housing crisis is mainly caused not by immigration but by failing over decades to build enough new homes, by fetishising ever-rising house prices, and by protecting the sacred Green Belt at all costs. That legal, working age, immigration not only provides the people and skills needed to keep public services like the health service afloat, but also a much needed injection of cold hard cash into Treasury coffers through taxation. That we need to spend some of that cash to provide the public services all taxpayers deserve, rather than whine about the pressure incomers are putting on schools, hospitals and other facilities. That immigration and cultural diversity enrich our country and contribute to innovation and economic development. That there are plenty of Brits scattered all over Europe as well as Europeans here. And above all, that linking the humanitarian crisis in the Med to Brexit is deeply wrong, given that Syria and Libya will continue to burn and refugees will continue to come no matter what we do on 23 June - and it is perfectly plausible to argue that we'll see more Albanians in boats in the Channel if we leave the Union, and not fewer.

No, my main point is this: Britain's moderate, mainstream, politicians need to change their ways to become leaders and not supine sheep. What they are reaping now is the harvest of years of cowardice and complacency, during which they failed to have the courage to stand up to base instincts, ugly media headlines and present another view of immigration. Instead they sat back, they trimmed, and they lost their audience. It was the same with the case for the Union in the run up to the Scottish referendum, and the same in countless other instances in recent years. If good sense prevails on 23 June and moderate politicians continue in future to shape the political landscape of the UK I hope they have learned a lesson: to grow a pair, to stand up for what they believe, and to keep informing the electorate about political, economic and social facts rather than fiction, whether there is an election or referendum on or not. In short, to say always what is right even when it is not popular.

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