With the election of the supposedly ‘moderate’, ‘soft left’ lawyer Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader, most observers would agree that it has become harder to claim the mantle of social democracy from the Labour Party.
Now that the extremist Corbyn regime is history, those Labour MPs who see themselves as social democrats have a much better alibi for taking the easy path and staying put.
However the direction of Labour policy under Starmer already demonstrates that genuine social democracy is not going to prosper in his regime. It is quite clear that the now-familiar metropolitan, liberal-left perspective that unites Blairites and Corbynites will remain completely dominant.
The Blue Labour caucus, which emphasises social solidarity within the nation state, seems even more forlorn now than under Corbyn, who at least had a record of opposing EU power grabs because of his dedication to the notion of achieving ‘socialism in one country’.
The Starmer leadership has seen Labour declare that the UK should continue to be governed by European Union regulations and laws into 2021 and beyond, with the party now calling for transition to carry on indefinitely, until a ‘deal’ is reached with Brussels on our future relationship.
More tellingly, Starmer has led his MPs in a clear direction on immigration. Despite the coronavirus slump being projected to leave one in three British 18- to 24-year-olds unemployed by the autumn, Labour is crossing swords with Priti Patel in a bid to preserve free movement into the UK jobs market from all EU countries.
At the same time, the party has said nothing about the scandalous spectacle of dinghies crossing the English Channel crammed with young men from Africa and Asia and being escorted into port by the UK Border Force.
Neither has it criticised the Government for overseeing another year of net immigration above a quarter of a million – despite all the pressures that places on social cohesion, housing and public services.
During his campaign for the Labour leadership, Starmer came out with a series of pledges on immigration, each designed to please the large majority of party activists who wish to dismantle controls. As well as supporting continued free movement, he also wishes to close immigration removal centres such as Yarl’s Wood and outlaw indefinite detention of failed asylum-seekers.
There is every sign that, under Starmer, Labour will move further in the direction of explicitly supporting the ideology of ‘global citizenship’, thereby effectively repudiating the idea of the nation state and the notion that citizens might have higher bonds of loyalty and mutual obligation to each other than outsiders.
This is a betrayal of the values and interests of working class communities across Britain and, I would argue, of the outlook of the celebrated 1945 Attlee administration which was galvanised by the idea of a national family, with the new National Health Service being funded by a system of National Insurance.
There is a baton here to be picked up by the Social Democratic Party. We must never be intimidated into accepting the false suggestion that broad affinity to the nation state and a sense of higher obligation to compatriots are regressive ideas or that wishing to control international immigration is necessarily ‘right wing’.
In fact, with Boris Johnson’s Tories increasingly exposed as paying mere lip-service to the idea of lower immigration, we should be toughening up our policies.
As vacancies plummet and unemployment among Britons soars, as our housing stock is increasingly exposed as inadequate for the size of population and as coronavirus shows how high density population can be an acute public health risk, it is time to be bolder.
A significant pause to this era of mass immigration should be our goal: to allow social cohesion to recover; to facilitate better integration into core British values within some poorly integrated minority communities and to protect the job prospects, wage levels, housing conditions and access to public services enjoyed by working class people in general.
For the SDP to argue for a ‘great immigration pause’ would show that we are not prepared to allow such common sense territory to be monopolised by the Right’s great showman populist Nigel Farage.
I am not, of course, arguing for a halt to all immigration. In an open-minded country like Britain there will always be a place for those from overseas whose skills can add value to our economy and society.
Nevertheless, I think very low net inward migration should be a clear goal for the SDP now. Low gross immigration should be another: so communities can have a breather from 20 years of breakneck change – and so we can start to get to know each other once more, as neighbours and fellow citizens.
We must reclaim the idea of strong immigration control as an enlightened social force. The modern liberal-left, under Starmer, yearns for a future of ‘no borders’. That is not what voters in the former Red Wall seats who turned Tory in December believe in. If and when the Tories let them down, we should be there to pick them up.