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Getting closer to the people

Don Flynn asks will it help Labour sort out its immigration problem?

The struggle for Labour's soul is being pursued on more fronts than WWII at the present moment, with leadership contenders mobilising battalions of 'community organisers' and the constituency parties reaching out to bring in new members from amongst the ranks of those already disillusioned with the coalition.

No one can deny that it isn't all needed, though the question of what the party intends to do with all these new militants occasionally niggles. The options seem large. A recurrent theme seems to be reinventing something like the 'pothole inspectors' beloved of the old Liberal party back in the 1970s, when no by-election was complete without flagstone-by-flagstone analysis of the state of the nation's pavements, because 'that is what really matters to real people.'

What this approach does is help politicians to come up with workable templates which can be superimposed on the thinking of 'real people' to produce some sense of order into the tumult of hopes and anxieties, which is the actual state of their consciousness. The belief that it can all be boiled down to unhappiness with the state of the pavements, or level of taxation, or the number of immigrants living locally, is a powerful tool in the hands of the politician who is striving to be 'relevant'.

The problem for Labour, and all the other advocates of community organising, is that the issues which yield up the easy victories the politicians crave are harder to come by in this day and age, when even the humble task of filling a pothole is likely to run headlong into the bigger issue of draconian public spending cuts.

The Tory part of the coalition has its pat answer to these dilemmas, which in future months will be trumpeted as the need to 'just jolly well get down to it yourselves and mend the potholes without expecting the 'Big State' to do it for you.' If this catches on the outcome will be predictable: middle class residents' associations will emerge in neighbourhoods which cover just a few percent of the total population, used as exemplars for the sort of 'empowerment' the Coalition has made possible, and the rift between them and working class communities which lack the resources and the social capital to secure advantages will grow ever wider.

Labour strategists should acknowledge that community organising is not the bed of roses which some seem to think it might be. If it is done badly it will become a mechanism for generating a bunch of imaginary friends for politicians looking for local salience, without making any significant contribution towards clarifying the real political tasks which confront the left in the UK today.

This point can be illustrated from the example of immigration, which constantly comes up in discussions involving both professional politicians and the constituency activists as the big issue which the party has to prove itself on.

A gaggle of party luminaries and others have come forward since the election with arguments as to the role that immigration policy might play in reconnecting the party with the people. Former immigration minister Liam Byrne, in a pamphlet published by 'Progress' back in June, gazed on the gap that had opened up between the party and the views of the 'C2s' - the skilled working class group which once formed the backbone of British Labourism. The party's inability to explain why so much of its economic growth strategy depended on the importation of migrant labour promoted the sense that it was 'out of control' and a threat to the interests of the people the party most needed to get back into the 'Big Tent'.

What does this entail? The influential editor of Prospect, David Goodhart, used the Labour Uncut website to argue in unequivocal terms that Labour should reclaim its working class credentials by proclaiming itself the 'anti-immigration' party. The contenders for the party leadership took up the issue in ritualistic fashion almost on the days of announcing their respective candidacies, with views that range from David Miliband's lament that the 'tough' points base scheme hadn't been put into force earlier, through to Ed Ball's more radical proposal that even the issue of free movement in the EU should be rethought, with limits on the right to migrate which are not now allowed by the treaties. Diane Abbott alone resisted this tendency to go down the slippery slope, insisting that migrants were not the real cause of Labour's problem with the C2s.

The noise on this issue has gone somewhat quieter from the leadership candidates at least. Without being privy to the counsels of the good and the great, this might have something to do with the growing sense that the coalition government is faced with the prospect of a series of immigration crises all of its own in the coming months, and Labour's response ought to relate as much to that as it does to its perception of what its core voters want. The coalition government's consultation on the implementation of a cap on skilled migrants is expected to produce a very hostile response from the business community, which generally favours liberal access to supplies of high added value foreign workers. Labour's past hostility to the idea of a cap on numbers will limit the wriggle room available to the next leader as he or she considers the stance the party will need to take on this gathering storm of an issue.

The point here is that the leader of a political party will be acting foolishly if s/he allows themself to be guided by purely populist principles in dealing with just about any issue - particularly one as sensitive as immigration policy. The truth is that, despite appearances, the voting public is not conveying any simple messages when it comes to this issue in any event, despite what any of the exponents of the black arts of opinion polls and focus groups would have us believe.

This point is made in detail in a forthcoming article to be published in Renewal - the journal of Labour politics, authored jointly by the current writer, Rob Ford and Will Somerville. Making use of British Electoral Survey analysis, the article sets out the view that immigration was not the 'vortex' issue which some claimed for it, and not even the principle reason why the C2s defected back on polling day in May. In a more nuanced analysis than attempted elsewhere, the article points out that immigration came a very long way behind economic policy as the main reason cited for switching votes. Whilst a view on migration is clearly a way of registering unhappiness about the direction the party has taken over the past two decades, the substance of the complaint requires more than the one dimensional interpretation that often seems to come from superficial pundits.

The last word that might be said on this issue comes from the experience of Citizens UK, the activist group which was lauded before and after the general election by the leaders of all three of the mainstream parties. Citizens UK provides the best model for what contemporary community organisation is all about. Based on practical, immediate experience of the needs of a community this approach takes participants through an analysis of the power set up which defines the local set up and refines messages out of a process of detailed discussion and the sharing of experiences.

But the Citizens UK take on immigration and local communities is very different from that expressed by the politicians so desperately seeking community salience. In the election campaign, Brown and Cameron arrogantly ruled out any talk of an amnesty for irregular migrants on the grounds that the appropriate way to deal with this issue is detention and enforced removal. Yet Citizens UK acknowledged as being closest to the moods of working class people in the gin cities of England - is also the leading proponent of the highly popular 'Strangers into Citizens' campaign, which advocates an 'earned route' for undocumented migrants into eventual citizenship.

It is important for politicians, and those on the left most importantly, to recognise that there are no messages out there amongst the public which are waiting to be picked up and interpreted directly into the programmes and manifestos of populist political parties. For radical democrats the entry into the discussion starts with a review of the political and economic situation which defines the period which we are moving through. Working with community, and other types of organisers, the left then has to find what resources of energy and hope exist amongst the communities they work amongst to bring about necessary change. This is an entirely different proposition from the road we are so often led down by the spinmeisters and focus group pundits.