25 June 2012

“Miliband forgot to talk about integration”

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Ed Miliband forgot to address the public’s worries about integration in his big immigration speech, argues Max Wind-Cowie.

Ed Miliband’s first big foray into the debate about immigration contained no major mis-steps.  He avoided the temptation to spend too long lecturing the British public about the myriad benefits that migrants bring.  He spent, probably, enough time accepting and apologising for the disregard and disingenuousness displayed by his party on this issue for much of their decade in power.  And he made a good fist of an important argument – that the real victims of mass-immigration have been our working class.  But there was a very profound and very important hole in the heart of Miliband’s speech, one he will have to fill if he is to be taken at all seriously, and that was the question of culture.

Miliband talked a lot, and talked well enough, about resources.  Social housing, social security, jobs and services – they all got a mention.  But nowhere did we see any concern for the less tangible, less measurable impact that immigration has had.  He mentioned ‘the pace of change’ but not what that change really feels like.

The reason for this is that – contrary to what many argue – it is entirely acceptable and normal in this country to have a debate about immigration.  But that debate, almost always, is artificially limited to the safe (ish) space of resource and reward – avoiding the more complicated and controversial questions of custom, culture, values and behaviour.  And that is a mistake.  Because the people who worry about mass immigration (and Miliband is correct to say that they are many and that they are very angry indeed) don’t measure its impact like economists pouring over a balance sheet.  They see the unfairness that Miliband refers to, of course, but they see other things too.

They see some communities prone to increasing self-segregation.  They see some practices and customs imported from elsewhere that offend their common understanding of the decent and the acceptable.  They see excuses made for ideas and prejudices long-since abandoned by most British people.  Be it open homophobia, forced marriage, outright racism and misogyny or unsettlingly totalitarian religious agendas – many British people look to some sections of our migrant communities and see an unintegrated mess of unwholesome attitudes.  What we thought we had vanquished is seen returning in the hearts and minds of those we regard as beneficiaries of the very openness they oppose.

Of course, these problems are not wholly the preserve of the European migrants on whom Miliband focused.  And none of the above is intended to paint an unremittingly bleak portrait of immigration to Britain – much of which has been hugely positive in both social and economic terms.  But in apologising for the effects of his Government’s immigration policies, Miliband should have acknowledged the cultural impact that they had.  Because by, in effect, opening our borders the Labour Government made integration for those already here – and those who were to arrive – a more difficult task.  Communities were not given sufficient time to adjust, planning of where and how people should settle was effectively abandoned, the impulse to ghettoise went unchecked.  And that crime – one against the cultural fabric of Britain – is the one that Mr. Miliband will need to find the words to atone for if he, and Labour, are to be trusted on immigration again.

Max Wind-Cowie is head of the Demos’ Progressive Conservatism project.

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