Immigrants Saved The NHS Long Before Burnham – It Is Time For Respect

By Seema Chandwani | Twitter @SeemaChandwani

After the election we find ourselves in the position of finding a new leader. But for a lot of ordinary members the choice is very difficult. Some members are even calling for MPs barely a week old to put themselves forward. It feels for many that we’re judging an ‘Eric Pickles lookalike bikini competition’ – no one contestant is turning us on.

The usual Labour demarcation lines of ‘left vs right’ are also not providing the ‘comfort zone guide’ some members rely on. For ‘the right’, they have many options at this stage to choose from – which is not the best place to be. For ‘the left’ however, we seem to be in a strange position, who are we backing? Are we resorting to backing the one who appears to have the least support from the ‘right’?

Many on ‘the left’, (especially white males), seem to be going for Andy Burnham. Burnham came to give a talk at our CLP just before the election and he was a very nice guy. He knew his brief around the NHS, he spoke with passion and sincerity. But he had the respect of many in the room before he came in as we had a clear policy on the NHS that local members agreed with and there was no real challenge from the audience.

So why am I not supporting Burnham like some of my other left-wing comrades? I wanted to take time to learn more about what Burnham would be like as Labour leader and as a potential Prime Minister. Yes he has the personable qualities and I could see the public liking the way he eats his bacon sandwiches, but where does he stand on policy areas other than the NHS?

It worries me that we on ‘the left’ could be choosing the candidate whose remit was the NHS, simply because it was the NHS. It was an important brief and following my sister’s illness in 2011 it is what spurred me to be more involved in the Labour party. Burnham’s vision, policies and fight for the NHS was fantastic and no one should take that away from him. However, the NHS already had a fan-base which Burnham inherited and that should not be mistaken as his personal popularity.

Yesterday – to the surprise of many, including myself – I found myself watching the Progress Leadership Hustings live online and it was insightful and useful to give members that real understanding of what the candidates think about issues and policies beyond their previous/current Shadow brief. All candidates are yet to show members the breadth of their knowledge on wider holistic political visions.

Burnham to my surprise, as he is the apparent ‘left wing’ favourite, started talking about Labour haemorrhaging votes to UKIP, how we needed to credibly address immigration and how immigrants should wait two years before being able to claim benefits etc. I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. Then it went further, with Burnham reciting the usual clichéd conversation all politicians have on the ‘doorstep’, Burnham spoke to one guy who told him about having teabreaks at work and everyone was not speaking English!

I was stunned.

Burnham can have these views (as can Farage, Rupert Rigsby and Alf Garnett) but here is a man being painted by some on ‘the left’ as the ‘left wing choice’!

Of course, now comes the “we need to have an honest debate about immigration without being labelled as racists” brigade, but this was not a debate. One minute people who come to the UK should not get benefits for two years and the next minute they are sitting in workplace canteens on tea breaks. Are they working or not? Reaffirming anecdotal negative stereotypes of people based upon race or nationality is not a debate – it is at best lazy and at worst dangerous and very stupid to add.

Before we can have a debate we need to be clear on what the subject is. Who or what are immigrants? Are we talking about the immigrants who come here due to persecution in their own countries? As in refugees and asylum seekers, we as a nation have signed up to Treaties to protect? Those immigrants? No?

Maybe we are talking about the thousands of Australian, Canadian, Irish and American [mainly white English speaking] immigrants? No? Or are we talking about the thousands of Indian and Chinese immigrants studying in our Universities paying high rates of fees to keep our educational institutions going? No? Possibly we’re talking about immigrants that came here in the 60s and 70s, or their children born here that have contributed to the economic development of this country for decades? No?

Could we be discussing the thousands of immigrants who come here to work so we can keep our public services such as transport, social care and of course the NHS functioning. The ones who have saved our NHS a long time before Burnham got involved? No?

I guess we must be talking about the EU immigrant then? Of course we are, because Burnham has spoken in the Observer about wanting to be ‘tougher on EU migrants’ claiming benefits. This is despite DWP statistics, which clearly show that only 2% of benefit claimants were EU Nationals. Yet we’re happy to let the stereotype go unchallenged and be ‘tougher on immigration’ to appease UKIP voters.

Our pledge card omitted actual political areas like Education and Crime to make space for “controls on immigration”, we even had an ‘Ed Stone’ and a mug (OMG we had a mug!). It did not attract the 3.8 million people who voted UKIP, in fact our strange ‘apology’ over immigration and bizarre crockery probably legitimised UKIP and pushed more people towards them.

But the question of who we are talking about is not the right question; the right question is why we are talking about immigrants like this in the first place. Who has set this agenda?

‘Immigrant bashing’ occurs when people who are suffering need someone to blame and politicians point the finger away from themselves. Good outcomes on jobs, housing, education, policing that benefit all is what starves this type of ignorance and that is plain to see in Germany. The rhetoric from Merkel has been around the importance of immigration to Germany’s economy and growth. The German Marshall Fund found that 64% of people in the UK see immigration as a problem compared to 29% who see it as an opportunity. However in Germany, where the Leadership has framed immigration more positively and where there has been economic growth and stability, 32% view immigration as a problem and 62% view it as an opportunity.

The next Labour Leader should be someone who can set the agenda and tackle the underlining issues of people’s concerns that lead them to feel so scared that they blame others. We should also be entering this EU Referendum with facts and not by playing up to UKIP myths.

I am a proud left wing Socialist, it’s a lifestyle not just a Twitter bio. Immigrant bashing is not a ‘left-wing trait’ in any circumstance. Immigrants have long contributed to this country and this party, it is about time they were shown some respect. Burnham seems to be clear about his immigration stance, but I think he should be asked directly by his ‘left-wing’ supporters where he stands and unless it fits into the ‘left wing ideals’ people need to stop claiming he is the ‘left-wing candidate’. I for one, as a ‘left wing’ Socialist from immigrant parentage, based on what I have seen and read in the last few days, cannot and will not be voting for him.