The referendum on EU membership saw a littering of images and rhetoric denouncing mass immigration to the UK, most infamously exemplified in UKIP’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster. But while Brexit brought expressions of anti-immigrant sentiment to the forefront of political discourse, it had already been stirred by the Conservative government’s austerity measures long before June 2016.
Simon Tilford, former deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, argued back in 2016 that membership of the EU had become synonymous with uncontrolled immigration. In his report ‘Britain, Immigration and Brexit’, Tilford argued that, despite the evidence suggesting otherwise, low wage earners perceived a causal link between immigration and falling wages. For this group of the electorate, therefore, the rise of immigrants living in Britain has contributed to poorer living standards and a lack of socioeconomic opportunity.
Tilford went on to posit that the “real culprit” of the lack of housing and strains on our public services, including the NHS and the education system, was decades of inadequate public policy. These strains have been further exacerbated by the Conservative’s current austerity agenda. However, as of yet, the Labour Party, which considers austerity the root of Britain’s social as well as economic problems, has failed to convince many Britons that the government, not immigrants, are to blame for their hardships.
It is the task of politicians to persuade the electorate that their policy initiatives will result in positive change, and most Labour MPs would agree that curating a diverse and open Britain is the way to ensure national success. While the Labour Party has long attempted to convince their traditional voters to recognise the social, cultural and economic contributions of immigrants, this has not proved overwhelmingly successful. In fact, the party risks further alienating these voters if they fail to recognise that the roots of anti-immigrant sentiment come from a sense of desperation and uncertainty.
Last November, Labour MP Barry Sheerman sparked controversy when he claimed that “better educated” Britons had voted Remain in the EU referendum. But Sheerman was correct to highlight the link between poor educational attainment and support for the Leave campaign, as many working-class voters used their vote to express discontent with the current political situation. Moreover, the indignant reaction to Sheerman’s comments is illustrative of the growing sense of disillusionment traditional Labour voters are experiencing with the party.
If Labour is to regain the confidence of their traditional voters, it must first seek to understand that successive British governments have failed to address the socioeconomic issues faced by poor citizens. Only once these voters are provided with better education and greater access to training and employment can the Labour Party begin to convince them of the tangible benefits of immigration.
Isobel Ashby is a campaign volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights