Mixed Messages: Chuka Umunna on Immigrants in the UK

In a speech on immigration, Chuka Umunna has emphatically expressed a desire to point Labour in a new direction. The former Shadow Business Secretary has condemned immigrants for living what he calls ‘parallel lives’ and urged the government to make it clear that ‘not getting involved in the community is not an option’. Simultaneously he argues that Britons must also do their part in integration. So what is he really getting at?

Triggered largely by the rise of Ukip and responses to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, Umunna has broached an explosive topic in today’s politics. Umunna believes that Labour has gone about the topic wrong. Instead of blaming people’s fears on a ‘lack of understanding’ he believes the party should prove it is just as patriotic as the Tories and even Ukip. He proposes the way to do this is by taking a harsher stance on immigration and emphasising their need to integrate.

However, by putting the onus on immigrants to ensure integration occurs he is merely creating one more distinction between immigrants and Britons and reinforcing the ‘them’ and ‘us’ status quo. It is an understood social phenomenon that successful relationships rely on a give and take basis. Why should this not apply to immigrants?

The flaw in his argument is perfectly demonstrated by the example he gives. He praises the Somali community in Streatham, London, for opening ‘incredible’ businesses and restaurants, yet laments that they are rarely used by non-Somalis. Why, may I ask, is this the fault of the immigrants? They are making their culture available and opening a space for cultural interaction and it is the responsibility of non-Somalis to make the next step.

Whilst unfairly unloading almost all responsibility on immigrants, Umunna just manages to slip in that Britons should help with the process too. He suggests employers should give new arrivals time off work to learn English and local officials should have statutory duties to integrate immigrants. Perhaps what the finger pointing employed by Umunna really emphasises is the need for Labour to stop avoiding the topic and outline a coherent response to a growing topic of public interest.

[Kirsty Campbell]

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