The Three Controversial Elephants in Labour’s Room

So the coup against Jeremy Corbyn has failed – and spectacularly so. Whereas last September, Corbyn garnered just under 60% of the vote – his 3 rivals sharing the remaining 40% – this time against one candidate, Owen Smith, he has gained just under 62% with a much increased membership. But this resounding victory will not stop his detractors from continuing to argue that Corbyn is unable to lead Labour to a general election victory. Given that Labour trails the Conservatives, this may well be true. But  a point very much neglected in political and media circles is that even if the coup against Corbyn was successful, and a Blairite or someone more independent-minded such as Smith, had become leader, this would not change the electoral arithmetic significantly, which is to say that Labour would still be likely to lose. Indeed, even if the 172 Labour MPs who passed a motion of no confidence in him after the Brexit vote, left the party to form a new entity in alliance with the Liberal Democrats, this would not alter the outcome.

The focus of all elements in Labour has been – excepting Trident and the EU Referendum – on bread and butter issues. Ordinarily, this is right and proper for political parties aspiring to form a government – hence issues such as the NHS, jobs, pay, welfare benefits, and housing have been high on Labour’s priority. The key difference between Corbyn and his detractors is his tougher opposition to austerity measures. Whilst of undoubted importance, these issues will only go so far in the present political climate. Though four years is a very long time in politics (however, there are rumblings that an election may be called in the spring of 2017), it is important to recognise that solely focusing on these core issues will not suffice to enable Labour to achieve a parliamentary majority at the next general election. To have at least a chance of success will require Labour to acknowledge the existence of, and to robustly deal with, three controversial elephants in its room, the “3 Is”, that is, Immigration, Identity, and Islam. These are related and, whether we like it or not, are of great concern to a significant part of the electorate.

In his leader’s speech at the 2014 Labour conference, much was made of Ed Miliband’s failure to mention the budget deficit. However, Miliband also failed to mention immigration, and continued to downplay the issue during the election campaign of 2015. Labour’s perceived weakness on the issue – the first elephant in the room – was a decisive factor in its defeat; the beneficiaries were the Conservatives and UKIP. The issue of immigration cannot be ignored given that it has been one of the two most important issues (the other being the economy) since as far back as 2002 and is now by far the most important issue. It was decisive in the Brexit vote; a fact that is universally recognised, including by Theresa May, who was in the Remain camp, and is now on the case as PM in trying to bring the numbers down.

Immigration has long been Labour’s Achilles heel and the party has always been reluctant to engage in the issue candidly. This is because Labour’s gut instinct is to link immigration with racism – a throwback to the politics of 1960s and 1970s. But this link was exploded long ago and the centre of the debates on the EU Referendum was on restricting immigrants from the former Eastern bloc countries – who are overwhelmingly white. What is rarely mentioned in political and media circles, but of considerable importance, is that among ethnic minority citizens, a majority is in favour of cuts to immigration. In data compiled by Birkbeck College academics Eric Kaufman and Gareth Harris from Citizenship Surveys for 2007-2011 (slide 6) for the Demos thinktank, 77% of UK-born Sikhs, 65% of UK born Hindus and 55% of UK-born Muslims want to reduce immigration; though these are significant majorities, they are lower than the 83% of UK-born white British who want to reduce immigration. There is no significant difference along class lines (slide 8).

Almost always, discussions on immigration tend to solely focus on its economic impact and whether this is positive or negative. But this misses the point: immigration also impacts upon social, cultural, religious, and political factors in different ways. The British Social Attitudes Survey 2014 (p. 82, table 5.3) found that while 31% thought that immigration had a positive economic impact, 47% thought it had a negative economic impact; therefore, whether we like it or not, many who think it benefits the economy still wish to see it cut.

A core reason for reducing immigration is that of identity, Labour’s second elephant in the room; specifically the erosion of national identity as a consequence of the mass immigration of people with very different cultures, religions, and languages. The BSA 2014 Survey (p. 82, table 5.3) found that 6% thought that British cultural life was strongly enriched and a further 29% thought it was enriched by immigration (hence, 35% held a positive view). By contrast, 18% thought that it was strongly undermined and a further 27% thought it was undermined (hence, 45% held a negative view). Therefore, significantly more view the cultural impact negatively than those who view it positively with the implication being that British national identity is viewed as being undermined by mass immigration.

One can surmise, therefore, that the former are not – and perhaps never have been – enamoured by Britain being designated a multicultural society, an epithet that Labour politicians, especially in councils, have been most enthusiastic about. Indeed, Labour has been extremely accommodating to the separatist demands of some immigrants, in particular of Muslims. Conversely, it has avoided dwelling on the issue of identity (unless it is that of ethnic minorities) let alone attempting to forge a common national identity. But, unless Labour grasps the nettle and recognises those strands of values which are largely identified as British (and indeed European) identity, it will suffer electorally at the hands of the indigenous white population who consider this of high importance.

Of direct relevance to the other two issues is Labour’s third elephant in the room: Islam, and the widespread unease with this religion and its adherents. Given that anecdotal evidence suggests that Labour receives support from a significant majority of Muslims (though accurate data is not available, Labour does very well in constituencies with a high Pakistani and Bangladeshi population, who are overwhelmingly Muslim), Labour reflexively portrays Islam and Muslims in a positive or sympathetic light, as perpetual victims, or just ignores the issue. It was noticeable that Ed Miliband largely remained silent over the Charlie Hebdo attacks by Islamists in January 2015 and over the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham that broke in the summer of 2014; and Jeremy Corbyn likewise did the same over the Islamist terror attacks in Paris and Brussels. Last month, Corbyn’s accommodating approach was crystallised when he stated that he’ll “take Donald Trump for tea at Finsbury Park Mosque to teach him about diversity”; a rather odd (and some may even say ignorant and opportune) remark given that mosques are not places where even Muslims, let alone non-Muslims, go to take tea. This crass tactic is doubtless hurting Labour in wider society.

While attention has been focused on Islamic radicalisation and threat of terror attacks, concerns over Islam are much wider than this as is evidenced by successive surveys. In a chapter for the British Social Attitudes Survey 2010 David Voas and Rodney Ling (pp. 78-80) found that of all the major religions in Britain, only Islam generated an overall negative response. Similarly, a Populus opinion poll in 2011(table 96), considered the largest survey into identity and extremism in the UK, found that 52 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposition that ‘Muslims create problems in the UK’ (a far higher percentage than for other religious groups). It is likely that similar polls conducted now will register an even higher level of disenchantment. An indication of this is given by two opinion polls conducted last year (by Survation and YouGov): both found that only 22% of the non-Muslim population think that the values of Islam are compatible with the values of British society.

These findings suggest that it is clearly the case that the desire for most of the British electorate to cut immigration particularly applies to Muslims. Because of Labour’s laissez-faire approach that has attempted to meet nearly all the demands lodged by Muslim communities, many Muslims have developed ‘parallel lives’ (an epithet first coined by Ted Cantle in regard to the Oldham riots in 2001) and so has been extremely harmful to the cause of integration and social cohesion – and has also alienated large sections of the majority British society for whom religion is of little importance.

Labour’s refusal to engage with these 3 controversial elephants in the room: Immigration, Identity, and Islam has led to the bleeding of support to the Conservatives and UKIP – especially among Labour’s working class base. A recent poll by BMG Research for The Independent finds that only 22% of working class people think Jeremy Corbyn is “in touch with voters” while 42% think he is “out of touch”. Whatever your views are about these controversial issues, whether you think their philosophical significance needs to be severed or further ratified, the sobering truth is that until Labour at least engages with these 3 elephants in its political room, it will not be able to win this key constituency in sufficient numbers by the next general election. In the meanwhile, the Conservatives and UKIP, recognising Labour’s weaknesses will relentlessly press home their ‘advantage’ on these issues – issues that have, whether we like it or not, principal significance for large swathes of the British electorate.​

About Rumy Hasan 3 Articles
Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at Sussex University and author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths (2010), Dangerous Liaisons: the Clash between Islamism and Zionism (2013), and Religion and Development in the Global South (2019)

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