Joan Smith: Brown's delicate balancing act

The PM's talk of 'British values' seeks to reassure working class Labour voters, but does nothing to counter extremism
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We need to talk about... immigration. That's what the Prime Minister said last week, sounding like a nervous spouse raising a subject he knows is likely to lead to a bad-tempered argument. And it did, mostly because he used migration statistics that weren't strictly comparable, overshadowing his attempt to differentiate between legitimate concerns and racism.

The publicity given to extremist parties means there's a worrying level of racist sentiment among voters, and a willingness to acknowledge supporting the BNP. That's why Gordon Brown tried to address the concerns of Labour's core support in an awkward passage in his speech: "I know how people worry that immigration might be changing their neighbourhoods. They would worry if immigration was putting pressure on schools, hospitals and housing; and they question whether immigration might undermine their wages or might harm the prospects of their children." (My italics.)

All those conditional tenses are a nervous acknowledgement, without actually validating it, of what angry working-class voters are telling Labour activists. Brown and Nick Clegg say they want a responsible debate on immigration, but the danger is an arms race among political parties when the general election campaign gets properly under way; David Cameron has already taken the risky step of promising a cap on immigration if the Tories form the next government. And while the Prime Minister wants to put clear water between himself and the Tories, in the past he's used the shamelessly populist slogan "British jobs for British workers" to allay fears about unemployment.

The Tories are promising to reduce net immigration from its present level of around 150,000 a year to a figure in the tens of thousands. That's quite a pledge because there's been little change in long-term migration patterns over the past couple of years: the Office for National Statistics published provisional estimates in February that showed 518,000 people settling in the country in the year to June 2009 compared with 531,000 in the 12 months to June 2008. Levels of long-term emigration also showed little change: 371,000 in the year to June 2009 compared with 363,000 in the year to June 2008. These figures hardly support headlines about the UK being "swamped" by foreigners, but statistics don't have that much impact on how people feel; in the 1970s, when the number of people leaving consistently exceeded those arriving, there was much idle chat about too many immigrants coming to the UK.

Right-wing commentators are still citing the number of East Europeans who arrived in the UK from EU accession countries as an example of the present Government's supposed failure to control immigration, even though many have returned home and the numbers arriving have gone down. In February, the ONS revealed that long-term immigration from eight East European accession countries fell by 32 per cent in the year to June 2009. In that sense, the public debate about immigration is weirdly skewed; there are almost 200,000 Americans and 300,000 English-speaking citizens from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa in the UK, but no one talks much about them. Even voters who complain about Poles arriving in search of jobs soften their stance when they're asked about individuals they've had dealings with.

A difficulty for Labour at the forthcoming general election is that the Government has made mistakes in the past 13 years that haven't exactly encouraged social harmony. At a very basic level, neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown has done enough to narrow the gap between the wealthy and the poor here; it is easier to be generous to outsiders when you aren't living in a dilapidated council house on benefits or the minimum wage. Faced with an influx of asylum-seekers from, first, the Balkans and, later, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Government took the disastrous decision to disperse them in groups to poor parts of the country, where residents of run-down estates suddenly found themselves competing for scarce resources with the new arrivals. It's not unusual to hear British Asians demanding to know why Kosovans and East European Roma are being housed next door to them.

These factors complicate the debate about immigration and racism, and so does another development which the Prime Minister tried to address in his speech on Wednesday. Brown talked about honouring "the values that make Britain what it is", and issued a stern warning to people who don't share them: "I have only one message – you are not welcome." Personally, I'd rather talk about universal human rights than "British" values, but once again the problem isn't as straightforward as the Prime Minister suggests. Some of the most powerful voices in support of human rights have come from within the black and Asian community; groups such as Southall Black Sisters, Karma Nirvana and Apna Haq, have campaigned against domestic violence, forced marriage and "honour" crimes.

Unacceptable attitudes to women and gay people are not found only among recent immigrants to the UK; many young Asian men who have turned to Islamism, for example, were born here, went to British schools and began listening to extremist preachers in their teens and early twenties.

As the election draws near, the Prime Minister's speech can be seen as an attempt to achieve a delicate balancing act, aimed at calming the fears of working-class Labour voters while reassuring long-established Asian and black communities. Instead, it produced uncompromising headlines such as "Respect our values or stay away, Brown tells migrants". Not for the first time, Brown's populist instincts got the better of him, and an intelligent debate on immigration seems as far away as ever.