I have spent the last 2 weekends canvassing council estates. As you find in lots of places, many people, when asked to list their main worries, include “immigration”.

Immigration is an extraordinarily abstract concept in this context. Almost every other answer you get is either local (that wall there is crumbling) or national but directly material (my son can’t find a job because of the recession) or general anger over expenses. No one has ever told me that they’re worried about the deficit, or about the mobility of global capital, or about the ageing population.

So why do people worry about the mobility of labour, but not of capital?

We might think it’s because they see people moving in near them, and so have direct experience of it. But from my time canvassing, anecdotal evidence from friends, and the only studies I’ve seen, worry about immigration is much more prevalent in areas which haven’t experienced much of it (in all four days canvassing, I only met 2 people who were BME).

So why are people worried about immigration? Well, I’ve taken up asking. There are, essentially three answers. Some people say something like “there are just too many of them”. I don’t have much to say about that.

But most people say either “jobs” or “not enough council housing”. With these people, it is very easy to turn the conversation into anger with either Thatcher for introducing “right to buy” without investing in new stock, or with bankers & the politicians who handed the economy to them. It’s usually easy enough to sway them with support for restricting right to buy, and investment in job creation.

That the right have managed to take the macro-economic factor of labour mobility and convince millions that it’s to blame for their day to day problems is as extraordinary as it is scary. But every time Labour (or even, in the recent debate and to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems) accept this premise but concede they won’t deal with the ‘problem’ as aggressively, they drive people to the arms of racists.

So by talking about ‘getting tough on immigration’, Labour can never win. All they do is confirm the slightly odd belief that it is to blame for people’s day to day problems. If you then tell these people that they are racist, they will, ultimately, conclude “well, ok, I’m racist then”. People are not naturally racist. But if they believe that the presence of a particular group of people is what has caused their day to day problems, then they will start to dislike those people.

This is a big problem. By repeating the word ‘immigration’ ad nausiam, the right has persuaded ordinary people that they represent their material interests. Every time Labour pander to it, they hand over this debate. Labour can either tell people that this is an accurate macro-economic analysis, but that they are too wet and liberal to do what’s needed to solve it. Or they can tell them, in clear terms, what they will do to deal with the genuine problems of unemployment and housing shortage, and explain, in clear terms, how the right genuinely are proposing policies which hit working class people hardest.

My surprise over the last few weeks is being reminded quite how easy the latter is. But unfortunately Labour are obsessed with triangulating into the same neo-liberalism that is to blame for these problems. And so seem unwilling to do it.

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.