Hopes devoured: “culture,” “identity” and Labour’s concession on U.K. immigration

Opinion by Winston Shi
Oct. 12, 2014, 9:19 p.m.

Everything’s coming up UKIP these days. After all, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a political organization that preaches a tough stance on immigration and withdrawal from the European Union, recently won its first seat in Parliament. Moreover, opinion polling shows surging support for UKIP. For a party that has traditionally enjoyed marginal support in parliamentary elections, that success in and of itself would be worth mentioning. But what’s more interesting – and globally relevant – is how the Labour Party, one of the most powerful political organizations in Europe, reacted to UKIP’s rise.

I understand why Labour might be worried about UKIP: Facing UKIP in a special election, Labour came perilously close to losing a safe seat that it had never lost in 30 years. While UKIP and the Tea Party are different things, the political factors in the U.K. do resemble those in the United States, where the Republicans haven’t coalesced on immigration, and Democrats refuse to push through immigration reform because it would hurt the Party in the midterm elections.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband addressed UKIP’s message in an op-ed for The Guardian, and the ideological concessions that Miliband promised are electorally savvy but disheartening nonetheless. In his op-ed, the leading light of the Labour Party officially accepted “culture” as a reason to clamp down on immigration, and that resistance to multiculturalism should worry voters on both sides of the political aisle.


To Miliband’s credit, he acknowledged that UKIP was not just a right-wing movement and that the traditional Labour base could not be taken for granted. “That is why we have developed a new approach to immigration,” Miliband promised. “We are responding to people’s concerns in hard-headed fashion: recognizing how immigration has helped our country as a whole but setting out effective measures to prevent the undercutting of pay or loosening the ties that bind our communities together.”

Loosening the ties that bind our communities together. While I don’t think for a second that Miliband is prejudiced, racially or otherwise, he should be more aware that appeals to “culture” in the immigration debate come out as the language of coded prejudice. The immigration debate in the U.K. is mostly about white immigrants from the rest of Europe, but even so, far too often, both in the United States and elsewhere, “culture” and “identity” have been used as politically correct bywords for “race” and “exclusion.” And in an era in which lawyers and PR consultants go over every word that the leader of the Labour Party writes, it’s hard to imagine that Miliband’s words were just an unfortunate coincidence.

Culture and national identity are very real and should be respected; you wouldn’t expect an American to play the Doctor or James Bond, would you? There is such a thing as “Britishness.” But the attitude towards culture that Miliband espouses is decidedly lacking in nuance. While I’m glad that Miliband recognizes the contributions that immigrants can make, defining immigration as something that loosens “our communities” inevitably frames immigration as a cultural poison. More than that, it depicts British communities as culturally monolithic, an absurdity when you consider the multicultural and cosmopolitan metropolis that is London. London makes it abundantly clear that immigrants, far from being destructive to culture, contribute to that culture. A normative attitude towards culture misses the point: Our history, customs and traditions shape our identities, but we shape them as well, generally for the good. And UKIP hasn’t quite gotten the message yet.


The Labour Party is aware that many U.K. voters view immigration as a culturally damaging force, and having stewed on the opposition benches for four years now, Miliband recognizes that he needs to make compromises for the sake of what he views as the greater good. Even so, his concession to this idea – in a piece that was otherwise quite nuanced, politics aside – is profoundly disappointing.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has come out against UKIP in the past, calling it a group of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly.” Angrily opposed by UKIP, he has nevertheless refused to apologize. I don’t know whether UKIP is full of racists; I oppose its attitude on immigration, but unlike Cameron, I don’t live in the U.K., and so racism is a charge I don’t feel qualified to either make or disprove. What is clear is that the Conservatives are under the same kind of electoral pressures as Labour. So far, though, the Conservatives have not conceded the cultural argument, especially not as openly as Labour has.

Labour is one of the great mainstream parties of Europe, and its willingness to link immigration restrictions with cultural concerns implicitly legitimizes that tactic. In the United States, where immigration is one of the most important issues that faces us today, opposition to immigration has been most broadly illustrated in economic terms; the cultural subtext is often there, but it has neither been officially adopted nor coherently illustrated by party leadership. But if Labour succeeds in the coming election, what’s to say that that tactic won’t become something broadly acceptable? What’s to say that we won’t see similar tactics being openly employed on a national level in the United States?

Ed Miliband is a good person, and he truly wants the best for the United Kingdom. But while this latest appeal to voters may not be craven, it certainly smells of cynicism.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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