Sheri Berman, writing on the Social Europe site, has a challenging article about immigration and the left. She argues that:
"The main challenges facing the left and Western democracies more generally fall into two core categories: economic and social. In recent years a general consensus emerged regarding the former that the left had moved too far in a neoliberal direction and needed to shift course, directly attacking rising inequality, and declining social mobility and strengthening the welfare state. Yet there has been no similar reassessment of the left’s position on social issues, particularly immigration and national identity. Indeed, even suggesting that reassessment is necessary often provokes a backlash."
This seems right to me and she goes on to note the backlash to Hilary Clinton's comments on the issue, which should have been uncontroversial to anyone reasonably closely tethered to political reality. Clinton said "Europe [needs] to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame" of right wing populism and that obviously not everyone who wants to immigrate to the West can be allowed to. But it was not uncontroversial and she was pilloried for giving aid and comfort to the far right.
Berman says "[s]uch responses hinder rather than help the left deal with the threat from the right because they dismiss rather than address voters’ concerns." I think she is right. As she notes, voters have a wide range of both economic and social concerns; the left will gain nothing from airily dismissing them all as the ravings of unreconstructed racist reactionaries. As she puts it:
"Addressing these concerns is not equivalent to adopting or “normalising” the xenophobia or racism of the populist right. There is a distinction between shunning populist parties and dismissing the grievances they exploit. It is the job of parties of the left, and democracy more generally, to provide explanations of and solutions to societal problems and dissatisfaction. In the past, the tendency to ignore or denigrate concerns about immigration and national identity has done little to halt populism’s growth; indeed, it may have facilitated it by allowing populists to exploit these issues even further.
Fortunately, a “backlash against the backlash” against engaging in these issues is developing. Alongside the interventions by Blair, Clinton, Renzi and Nagle, John Judis, Francis Fukuyama, William Galston, Michael Bröning and others have recently written thoughtful books and articles on immigration and national identity. The left needs to engage the ideas and policy suggestions raised by these and other authors and the fears and concerns of their voters and citizens more generally, rather than dismissing them. A distinguishing feature of populist voters is a conviction that politicians, parties and governments are not responsive to them. To counter this conviction in general and fears of immigration and threats to national identities in particular, the left needs to develop distinctive, positive and viable responses to immigration to counter the dystopian ones offered by the right. If it does not, it simply allowing the right to define and drive the debate."
We shall see how far the backlash against the backlash gets. But it seems undeniable to me that fresh thinking is called for in this area. As the last few years demonstrate, the issue will continue to provide fodder for the right until the left has better answers for people's concerns than they have today.