The week of 17th November is not one that I will choose to remember with any affection. On the Thursday the Labour Party, of which I am a life-long member, took an absolute hiding in the Rochester and Strood by-election. On the Saturday the Welsh rugby team, of which I am a life-long supporter, took an absolute hiding at the hands of the New Zealand Rugby team. At least Wales played well and were up against a better side.
At the end of this depressing week, on the Saturday evening after the game, I was standing in a long queue at Cardiff Station. Most people in the queue were Welsh supporters who were drunk, depressed or both. Immediately behind me, however, were a young mother and her daughter who had been shopping and been caught up in the crowd. Welsh rugby supporters wouldn’t hurt a fly but because they are raucous can appear in a little intimidating.
I therefore asked the child if she had been Christmas shopping. The mother replied that her daughter wouldn’t understand, as they were Czech. I said that I had never been to the Czech republic but I greatly enjoyed the time that I had spent working in Poland. At which the mother replied, in perfect English: ‘too many Poles over here’. This remark made me thoroughly depressed. Was it a bit of petty racism or was the mother trying, in some bizarre way to distance herself from unpopular immigration? I simply said that I had Polish members of my own family and thought that our country had benefited enormously from the global economy and left it at that.
Casual racism seems to have become endemic and acceptable at a time of economic recession and I am disappointed at the timid stand that the Labour Party is adopting. I would never leave the Labour Party but there are occasions when I wouldn’t object to being expelled. One occurred when, in the autumn of 2013, our local Labour Party in Norfolk was addressed by one of the candidates from Labour’s regional list for the 2014 European elections. The substance of the gentleman’s speech amounted to the suggestion that if we could persuade Labour’s core vote that we were as hostile to immigration as UKIP, there was a chance that he would be elected. He seemed to think that this was a good thing; I am not sure I agreed.
Now to return to the Rochester and Strood by-election. The winner was an unimpressive former Conservative MP who in the course of the campaign advocated the repatriation of people who were living here perfectly legally – though in fairness this view was subsequently renounced. There was, by all accounts, a good Labour Candidate in the field.
However, and this is a big however, that very same week (on polling day) the quarterly Neet figures were published. These give details of the numbers of 16-24 year olds not in employment, education, or training. The November 21st figures stood at 954, 000; this is down just 1.9 percentage points from a year earlier and 13.1% of our young people now fall into this category. What this means is that the economy has stabilised at a level where a whole generation are being denied job and life opportunities.
Sadly Labour Leader Ed Miliband has tried to link apprenticeships with immigration and offered a remedy that simply does not withstand scrutiny. On October 24th, clearly with the by-election in mind he promised that ‘large companies that hire foreign workers would be required to train apprenticeships too’. This idea is sound-bite politics and could only be advocated by someone with limited practical experience of training in organisations. It links two totally separate issues in the skills arena. There is an urgent need to create more meaningful apprenticeships places but not through a form of sanction or punishment for sourcing highly specialist positions from overseas. Anyone in the EU already has full permission to work in the UK. Most larger organisations bringing in workers under special schemes from elsewhere will already have apprenticeship schemes in place so for them it will be a matter of ticking a box to demonstrate compliance. Ed Miliband has been badly advised – in this case by the IPPR think-tank.
Two much broader statements are required to regain the confidence of the electorate. The first is an emphasis that the global economy, as it is currently operating and structured, is working mainly for the benefit of the better positioned and the better off. The second is a firm and unequivocal rejection of the scapegoating of immigrants and the accompanying racial overtones. Labour may still have polled fewer than 7000 votes in Rochester but at least we would have made a principled stand at a critical time.