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Calling For Mandatory English Lessons For Immigrants Doesn't Mean Chuka Umunna Is Now Nigel Farage

05/01/2017 16:40 | Updated 05 January 2017
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Forcing immigrants to learn English, migrant groups living "parallel lives", a "democratically" managed immigration system - as someone who has done my fair share of Ukip reporting, these are all phrases and arguments I have heard many times before.

But today it was Labour MP Chuka Umunna - a man frequently described by Nigel Farage as the "high priest" of the so-called Metropolitan Liberal Elite - who was speaking those words.

At the launch of a report into the impact of immigration on social integration, Umunna made it clear that high levels of migration has had an impact on community cohesion. He set out a range of measures - including the forced learning of English - which he believes are needed to help tackle the issue.

Does this new focus on immigration and integration mean that one of Labour's most recognisible politicians has shifted to the right and is aping Ukip?

Or does it mean that topics which for so long were associated with Farage and Ukip are now finally being recognised by those in Westminster?

I believe it is the latter: Umunna is not trying to be Farage. They have both diagnosed the same problem, but are prescribing different remedies.

"If we seek to align ourselves with people approaching this immigration issue who say 'shut the borders, all of the problems in our country are caused by immigrants' that will simply be a betrayal of our values and we may as well pack up and go home. But equally if we deny that population change poses a challenge to communities then the communities we represent will feel that we have got our heads in the sands" - Chukka Umunna

When you consider the issues at play - the impact of immigration on working class communities across the country - it is slightly baffling as to why the Labour hierarchy has not focused on them before.

As has been reported numerous times, particularly in the excellent Revolt on the Right book by Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford, Ukip enjoy significant popularity in working-class communities precisely because they do talk about these issues.

Quite simply, many clearly felt Labour did have its head in the sand when it came to immigration and integration.

Umunna is not the only Labour politician in recent months to conclude that one of the lessons of the EU referendum is the impact of immigration on communities. Stephen Kinnock, Rachel Reeves, Emma Reynolds, Jonathan Reynolds and Andy Burnham have all called for immigration controls as part of any Brexit deal.

Umunna himself has admitted that if he was presented with the choice of the UK staying in the Single Market on its current terms, or claiming back control of immigration, he would opt for the latter.

His critics, particularly those on the left, would claim that this MPs are simply giving in to the xenophobic politics pedaled by those on the right.

But it is important to note what Umunna did not say - either in today's speech or the report.

He didn't call for an actual reduction in the number of immigrants coming to the UK - despite, according to the Office for National Statistics, the figure running at an all time high.

Umunna and his colleagues are instead arguing that those who come to the UK need to integrate better, not necessarily that fewer need to come.

Unlike Farage, Umunna did not say that hearing foreign languages being spoken in public made him "feel awkward". The Labour MP's call for all immigrants to be able to speak English is designed to complement migrant's existing skills, not replace them.

Umunna is trying to find a middle way between the close-all-the-borders rhetoric of some Leave campaigners, and the protect-freedom-of-movement-at-all cost cries of hard-core Remainers. While this may be an intellectual responsible course of action for Labour, it could hold short-term pain at the ballot box.

As Vernon Coaker, the Labour MP who coordinated the party's campaign in the Sleaford by-election in December, attested, the voters are still very much in a Leave or Remain mindset. Other issues, such as local NHS provision, "hardly caused a whisper", said Coaker in an article for Labour List.

"Campaigning on the streets of Lincolnshire, I discussed little other than Europe with voters," he said.

He went on to say that: "There is a majority in the UK who seek a tolerant, multicultural society united by a belief in fairness, greater equality and social justice.

"We must be the voice of those people, but we can only do that by addressing their concerns, not what we believe are their concerns."

Umunna's grasping of the integration nettle shows that some in Labour are willing to take up that challenge, and finally listen to the people which Ukip had been lending an ear to.

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