Bread and Roses, Aspiration and Dreams

By Sukhwant Dhaliwal

Photo Credit: Rodrick Beiler

At the heart of General Election post mortems is a struggle over the direction of the Labour Party. MPs (and architects of days gone by) are tugging left and right in a desire to determine its onward journey. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has been quick to re-iterate what he sees as the ‘necessary’ ideological focus – to capture the centre ground by appealing to the ‘hard working people’ of Britain as well as the business and finance sector. His (widely contested) answer to Labour’s post-electoral quandary lies in committing the Labour Party to a politics of aspiration and fiscal discipline. Aspiration is understood largely in economic terms:

“Hard-working families” don’t just want us to celebrate their hard work; they want to know that by hard work and effort they can do well, rise up, achieve. They want to be better off and they need to know we don’t just tolerate that; we support it.

But what does the renewal of this ‘aspiration’, ‘achievement’ and ‘fiscal discipline’ mantra mean for the future of immigration? There are no direct noises around this as yet but we do know that, as Will Davies has explained, New Labour previously:

(made) a macro-economic case for immigration – that it is a net positive for both public finances and economic growth… a broadly neoliberal type of justification, submerging rights-based arguments within the logic of open markets…

Recent discussions seem to emphasise indirect references to immigration, as an adjunct to the material concerns of ‘hard working families’. The realisation that the scale and diversity of votes for UKIP were drawn from dissatisfied Labour Party voters as well as from  the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has met with a response that connects the material anxieties of those ‘hard working families’ and questions of ‘race’, nationalism and belonging. This is where immigration resurfaces as a bogeyman. No longer just a focal point for direct racism, it is also part of the collateral damage that politicians expect to encounter in order to regain the trust and votes of those ‘hard working people’. Theresa May and David Cameron hastened these connections – they pitched their arguments for the Immigration Act 2014 by conjuring up an image of a migrant reaper, undeniably illegal, lingering around and blighting the lives of those hard working, labouring families. Anti-immigrant sentiment (and its links with racism) is re-presented as a pragmatic response to popular concerns. Examples are to be found in May’s repeated references to people out there somewhere that think it is ‘unfair’ that others continue to be in the country when they have no ‘right’ to be here. As Kirsten Forkert pointed out, this is part of a now ‘common narrative’ that projects the political party as the vanguard of an electorate that have thus far been ignored. These silenced/ignored people are frequently referred to in generic terms as ‘the hard working people’.

ad_165619435The most direct challenge to the representation of immigration as antithetical to the interests of ‘hard working families’ has been to emphasise the contribution that immigrants have made to the British economy. More recently, the Movement Against Xenophobia (MAX) effectively transported this challenge onto a poster campaign – known by its twitter hashtag #IAmAnImmigrant. This comprises photographs of 15 people from different occupational backgrounds introducing themselves and declaring themselves to be immigrants. The immense popularity of the campaign is evidenced by the fact that over £50,000 was raised within a matter of weeks through crowd funding and led to the posting of 440 images billboards across the underground and 550 at rail stations across the country. Thousands of people have subsequently used the hashtag to retweet photographs of these posters.

According to the Movement Against Xenophobia (MAX), the purpose of the campaign has been to emphasise the positive benefits of migration:

Migrants make a substantial contribution to the economy, enrich Britain’s culture and improve the standard of its public services. The multicultural and prosperous Britain that exists today has been created through generations of immigration and accepting refugees, this is not recognized in the mainstream public discourse about immigration and asylum.

There is no doubting the value of this kind of argument and the distinct appeal of the images – they personalise immigration, moving it away from the numbers game to a level of familiarity. Cost benefit analyses are replaced with the individual testimonies of people whose families at some point migrated into the country and are likely involved in improving the quality of your daily life – there’s a nurse, a fireman, a trade union representative, a barrister.

Similarly, at a recent public meeting on immigration, a member of the audience proposed that we should all, any of us that have histories of migration, walk out of our workplaces, schools, universities and community centres in order to demonstrate the hugely significant contribution that migrants make. The likelihood being that many workplaces, businesses, welfare services, emergency services, would come to a standstill. And indeed the shutdown of Chinatown in 2013 certainly proved the symbolic power of such a move as the bustle of central London life ground to a halt and engulfed in an eerie silence as restaurants and businesses closed and their proprietors and workers came out on to the street to state their opposition to immigration raids.

These are types of economic arguments – all the posters depict independent, productive and aspirational people. The walk outs are about the withdrawal of labour and business. The people involved are infact a part of that mass of ‘hard working people’ that the government claims to represent. As such, these forms of resistance potentially utilise the same frame that has enabled the likes of UKIP to co-opt ethnic minorities by reframing the immigration debate as a distinction between good and bad citizens. But who will give voice to those migrants that are not deemed to be deserving of our sympathies, the people that are damned for being destitute, for getting involved in prostitution, for smoking, drinking and for becoming dependent on drugs? Unfortunately, this is something that needs to be addressed. Across the six local areas that comprise the case studies of the Mapping Immigration Controversy project, we have been struck by the degree to which people are distinguishing between good and bad migrants, between those that deserve our empathy and those that are considered a burden, that trigger hostility, disgust and a desire for distance, those considered to be undeserving migrants. And all manner of unwelcome developments in the local area – brothels, crime, alcoholism – became pinned to ‘illegal immigration’ even it was never clear whether those that expressed these feelings new the immigration status of the people they referred to.

Owen Jones recently proposed that, rather than allow the right wing to define aspiration for us, we could shift our understanding of it away from the neo liberal pre-occupation with blaming the individual and instead think of aspiration as a social good that involves people finding common cause with others. Aspiration could be part of a progressive language that institutes policies that will improve the lot of groups of people, particularly those at the bottom of the ladder, rather than individuals. In this sense, we become responsible for other people’s prosperity. This is a welcome shift away from projecting the less prosperous as lacking aspiration. But Jones’ better life is still framed in economic terms, for instance as a demand for better wages. Can this re-invention of aspiration ever really tackle the problem of xenophobia that lies at the heart of the immigration debate and leads local people to assume that immigration is an adjunct to crime, destitution, and substance misuse?

As was pointed out at a public meeting on immigration in Southall, reclaiming aspiration may not enable us to forge the kinds of social relations and norms that effectively challenge the levels of disgust that local people have started to express towards others that they deem to not be economically productive or socially valuable. And aspiration cannot embrace nor counter the scale of social cleansing that is now going on across the country.

We may need to reach for something more esoteric – Rita Chadha’s poetic words at a recent public meeting may carry the potential to lift us out of this neo liberal trap:

It’s not just about highlighting the contribution that migrants make, immigration is a dream – who am I to tell someone they don’t have the right to dream?

Migrant stories are not necessarily linear accounts of educational and economic uplift. Migration stories are often hampered by setbacks. And dreams are not always economically productive. Sometimes dreams are not even viable. If you have ever booked a flight to travel abroad without having to show your bank details and a long term plan for economic betterment, then you should be able to imagine that there are millions of others around the world that want to do that too. We need to find new arguments that defend that right to dream, that defend Rose Schneiderman’s call for roses as much as for bread.