Abusing And Threatening Politicians Does Not Cure Our Broken System

If we can’t manage a better political culture, we will never create a better, more compassionate country
Hannah Mckay / Reuters

“Burn in hell Amber Rudd you spineless c***”.

“Haha f*** off Amber Rudd you stupid, vile c*** woman”.

Why should we care if this is the response to the departure of a Home Secretary who inherited, presided over and defended an inhuman, heartless immigration system? And when those who stand up for the rights of those in that system routinely face similar anger from the right?

Because in the decade I spent working with refugee children and young people at Centrepoint and for the Children’s Society, I saw how the normalisation of hatred in public discourse proved most damaging to minorities and to the powerless: migrants, the poor, and children. In an derogatory, macho culture, the description of human beings as ‘feral’, and the use of terms like ‘swarms’ and ‘swamps’ are absorbed with little attention. It’s how - despite the inspiring, justified outrage about the treatment of the Windrush generation - dehumanising, offensive terms like ‘illegal’ immigrants are still circulating in the discussion surrounding Rudd’s resignation.

Celebrating the removal of one individual, while the terms of the debate, the system and the structural problems remain, feels futile. It is a sign of how bad our political debate has got that it provokes anger and threats to say so. I am glad Amber Rudd has resigned. I would be gladder still if I felt migrants in Britain could hold out much hope for progress. I would love to see her successor Sajid Javid overturn the culture of the Home Office, where draconian targets have long prevailed and those trying to defend the welfare of migrants have been blocked. I’d like to see him end the use of immigration detention, ensure legal advice for asylum seekers and take asylum accommodation out of the hands of private, profit hungry providers in favour of the councils and charities whose primary purpose is the welfare and best interests of people. There is little indication he will.

But in the years I spent working to achieve this I learned that while outrage and passion matter, aggression is a dead end. To change hearts and minds takes courage, the willingness to reach out and listen, and the space for debate. In immigration - the most abusive, angry, deliberately distorted realm of public policy - we have rarely seen this. That’s why a decade ago when I worked with migrant children, only a handful of brave Labour, Lib Dem and Tory MPs were prepared to stand up and champion their cause. Abuse and anger kills debate, obscures understanding and removes any room for compassion. In other words, it kills precisely what is needed - in the immigration debate more than anywhere else.

Frustration about a lack of humanity in politics and policy was one the factors that led me into Parliament in 2010. The distinction made by both the Labour government and the Tory opposition between “genuine” refugees and “bogus” asylum seekers had real world consequences for the children I worked with. It also had consequences for Labour. Alongside the quest for economic justice, at the core of socialism is a search for solidarity and fraternity which provides a crucial defence against the inhumanity of commodification and profit.

That’s why enabling a toxic political culture is an existential threat to the left. As Jon Cruddas said during the New Labour years, “if Labour becomes the voice for a shrill, sour, hopeless politics we will die and we will deserve to”. It opened the door to Cameron’s “Compassionate Conservatism”, which distressingly got a hearing amongst some of the people who worked alongside me with refugees because of the lack of it anywhere else in mainstream politics. Advancing the progress achieved for Windrush migrants this week depends on never again allowing that to happen.

Aggression, abuse and normalising hatred is a dead end for us and those who most need us. Attacking or threatening people because they disagree is the poison not the cure. If we can’t manage a better political culture, we will never create a better, more compassionate country. When I said as much on social media, the wave of anger was predictably overwhelming. I’m not sad for Amber Rudd. I’m sad for us.

Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan


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