No, Jeremy: Politics Is All About Borders Now

By electing a far-left internationalist, Labour has failed to listen to the hopes and fears of its core voters on immigration and welfare

Features Immigration UK Politics Western Europe
Odd man out: Jeremy Corbyn and rivals Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

The political theatre accompanying Jeremy Corbyn seizing power naturally captures interest, even among the ranks of society who rarely vote. But the excitement of a political coup, on the lines of Mrs Thatcher’s capturing of the Tory party back in 1975, shouldn’t distract from the issue that will come to dominate the rest of my political life and beyond. In my judgment we’ve seen nothing yet in respect to the mass movement of people fleeing terror. Or, much more importantly, of economic migrants using this mass movement of refugees as a cover for their natural wish to move and seek a radically better life in the West.

On this great emerging agenda neither the government nor Jeremy Corbyn has much to say. Ironically it is the government which is more likely to be saved by the crisis. It will be forced into action to defend our borders so that well before the next election events will have ensured that it is saying and, more importantly, doing much of what the electorate demands. If it doesn’t, I believe the political forces demanding effective border controls will be strong enough to break up Europe’s governing parties.

The pressure to act that naturally falls on the government will not be exerted on the Labour party, whose leader will naturally stick to the internationalist stance he has always espoused. The phrases will sound good to the activists who are understandably celebrating Jeremy’s success. But they will sound increasingly hollow to voters, who will be reminded every time they switch on the news that Europe’s borders are under attack as never before in our history.

Which brings me back to the Corbyn putsch and the comparison with the advent of Mrs Thatcher as Tory leader in 1975. There are crucial differences between these two takeovers, namely how Jeremy’s coup will impact on the events that have only just begun to engulf and will ultimately overturn British politics as we have known it.

On the purely local aspect of the leadership election outcome, British politics will be shaken up on a similar scale that followed Mrs Thatcher’s hijacking of the Tory party. Once in control Mrs T threw overboard the crew and headed the Tory ship into a new direction. 

Jeremy’s victory in the Labour party is of similarly breath-taking proportions. But here a crucial difference emerges. Mrs T sailed her ship into a political ocean that was favourable to her. Not so with Jeremy. His direction takes us into a huge ocean of hostile voters.

Mrs T had luck on her side. Her newly installed crew’s views were ones that had widespread support in the country, although not among the metropolitan elite. Jeremy’s crew members are similarly enthusiastic in the task before them. But their views are not ones that are shared widely enough to win an election, even in our broken electoral system that is overwhelmingly weighted towards the two main parties.

It is here that the tragedy engulfing Labour becomes more apparent. The crew Jeremy has, in effect, thrown overboard or who, more importantly, jumped ship, also hold views which couldn’t win in 2020.

The views of the three defeated candidates on controlling our borders are also anathema to voters — but for different reasons to the case put forward by Jeremy. The lines of the defeated opposition to Jeremy were of pure Blairism. Each of the three candidates are political children of Blair, no matter how much they proclaim otherwise. Theirs is a stance on Blair’s open Europe that inevitably leads to the same policies that will flow from Jeremy’s internationalism. The defeated wing of the Labour party is opposed to erecting national borders that will be the consequential demand arising from the collapse of European barriers.

It is at this point that Labour comes smack up against all the poll findings of why people voted as they did in the last election.

Jon Cruddas, the architect of Labour’s election manifesto, has now been tasked with drawing the lessons from the party’s historic defeat. He quickly published the detailed findings of a poll he commissioned into Labour’s election failure.

One only has to read the findings on the movement of voters away from Labour at the election to realise that Jeremy will be leading Labour into a political cul-de-sac. Jon Cruddas’s analysis presents voters as polarising into three broad, sometimes overlapping groups. The first, comprising about a third of the electorate and the largest among party members, are socially liberal, altruistic, at home with the modernity of city life, and better-off than most voters.

The priority of the second group, 37 per cent of voters, is to improve their income and social status. The third group is socially conservative with values centring around the home, the family and national security. They tend to be found among older voters and make up 29 per cent of voters.

In the general election, Labour witnessed a collapse in its support among its previous bedrock vote in this third, traditionalist group. Some 24 per cent of the UKIP vote came from Labour’s social conservatives. 

These voters are more likely than others to mention immigration, toughness on welfare, Europe, national security and fiscal responsibility as important. Any Labour recovery must be based on developing policies that win them back in a way that also appeals to other groups. More importantly, the views held by this third group will become more widely shared, particularly among the second group of aspirational voters, as the parliament unfolds. Defending EU borders will become the dominant political issue here until they are overwhelmed. Then the debate will switch fulltime to how to hold the line on our own borders.

Defending our borders will become the dominant issue in British politics. It will be the defining issue in the forthcoming EU referendum — no matter how the Prime Minister ducks and weaves over our renegotiation terms. It will also ricochet into home politics where welfare and the NHS will be viewed through the borders issue as they have never been before.

Take welfare first. Voters will demand that rules governing entitlement to social security benefits must reinforce how we define the borders to this country. The long-time grievance of voters — that welfare is unfair — centres on the fact that somebody is granted entitlement to benefit simply because they turn up to make a claim. Voters have long wished for a welfare system where entitlement to benefit is clearly linked to past contributions. In this way eligibility will reinforce our border controls.

Likewise with health. Our core working-class vote deeply resents our “open borders”-type welfare state. We run a National Health Service. The operative word here is “national”.  Yet Labour is all too often found to be sounding as if it supports a health service and welfare state open to all comers. The demand will be for a health and welfare state based on past contributions, with entitlements increasingly accessed only by prospective claimants in possession of ID cards carrying our contribution records and our right to be here.

Likewise with housing. We must tackle the inviolability of the green belt if the nation’s shortage of housing is to be addressed. But what is the point of building more houses if our borders are open and no one knows how many people will be seeking accommodation by 2020?

Moreover, if we believe the main basis of welfare is contributory, shouldn’t long-standing citizens be at the front of the queue for social housing and other areas of welfare?

The polls show that a new coalition of voters is willing to sign up to this kind of programme on health, welfare, housing and immigration. They have already moved into post-Blair Britain. But Jeremy rejects such an approach that holds out the possibility of building a wider coalition of voters prepared to give voice to the poor. Both Jeremy and his defeated opposition are, like Lot’s wife, frozen, staring into the past. 

Yet it is with border politics that Labour can begin to forge a coalition of voters whose sharp elbows will advance not only their own interests but those of the weakest. Here are the beginnings of a route back to power. But will these potential voters have to wait for a leader to emerge only after the razzmatazz of Jeremy’s victory is forgotten?