Ed Miliband and the English Language

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Picture the scene, t’was the week before Christmas and Ed Miliband and his advisers were worried about the rise of UKIP. The pointy heads were ordered to come up with a new policy. Answer the racist myths about immigrants and asylum seekers? Of course not! This is New ‘One Nation’ Labour. Miliband’s recent speech on English and immigration has been described as a ‘dog whistle’ to voters who due to confusion and constant anti-immigrant propaganda in the press have formed racist ideas.

We have become used to New Labour’s historical shift to the right but this latest policy is a new low. Miliband seems to lack any even vaguely liberal principles and bases his politics on trying to find accommodation with the agenda dictated by the right wing through the media.

The policy is a kind of ‘politically correct’ racism which has been sucked out of the thumbs of highly paid think-tankers who would not know a socialist principle even if it was served to them as a biscuit with their Starbucks latte. They may dress it up as an attempt to facilitate integration but in reality Miliband is saying: “We don’t mind your skin colour but you are different and you have to improve your English.”

A genuine socialist party would answer the lazy stereotypes about migrant’s language skills and supposed lack of integration with facts and figures and NOT pander to racist ideas.

Is there really a problem with social integration of migrants because of their poor English language skills?

What are the facts?

The 2011 census reveals that there are twice as many people of mixed ethnicity than there were in 2001. This does not indicate a longterm problem with integration.

The real segregation in the UK results from poverty not race and is a class divide.

During New Labour’s time in government the number of people privately renting almost doubled between 2001 and 2011. The numbers with mortgages had fallen quickly, from 39% in 2001 to be just 33% all households by 2011.

Miliband said: “Britain is at its best when it comes together as a nation, not when it stands divided. That’s what One Nation is about.” These are hollow, empty words. During the last Labour government the UK became more divided in terms of wealth, income and housing.

During the Oldham disturbances in 2001 the young British Asians who were involved spoke with Lancashire accents. Clearly the underlying problems which caused the riots were poverty, inequality and racism not language.

Miliband’s comments on learning English are particularly misleading and hypocritical. It was the last Labour Government which first started to cut funding for ENGLISH FOR SPEAKERS OF OTHER LANGUAGES (ESOL)

An excellent website ACTION FOR ESOL http://actionforesol.org/ clearly states what kind of English Language provision for migrants is needed:

§ People who need English language education to live and work in the UK should have a statutory entitlement to ESOL.

§ Language education is a public good which contributes to society as a whole. This should be recognised through the availability of an accessible, comprehensive and integrated system of ESOL provision, in which financial and other barriers to participation are removed.

§ Funding mechanisms should be transparent and encourage co-operation between providers, not competition. In particular, attention should be given to the lack of co-operation between different agencies, notably FE colleges and Jobcentre Plus2.

§ The opportunity to learn the common language of the community in which you live and work is a human right.

§ Access to ESOL should be independent of immigration status. ESOL classes should be free to all, including newly-arrived spouses, asylum seekers and students who are working.

§ It is discriminatory to marginalise people on the basis of their spoken language. The majority of migrants both want and need to learn English, and the claim that they do not belongs to the racialised immigration and cultural agenda in which migrants are scapegoated and where ‘language’ often serves as a proxy for race. This is especially pernicious in the contexts of funding cuts and restrictions on entitlement. We should resist being co-opted into a simplistic rhetoric of ‘citizenship’ or ‘community cohesion’. Source: ACTION FOR ESOL

The rise of UKIP is a danger to the working class but racist ideas will not be countered with a sort of ‘racism lite’ being offered by Miliband. The policy is particularly insidious as it based on complete myths. Miliband should know from his own experience as the son of immigrants that no-one who goes to live and work in another country ‘decides’ not to learn the language of that country.

An ESOL teacher commented to me recently that the only barrier she comes across to migrants learning English is the lack of free English language classes.

Miliband’s comments are also crass given the language situation in Wales where Welsh is an official language. Ed Miliband accused of ‘insensivity’ to Welsh language

As a language teacher myself I have never met a migrant who did not want to learn the language of the country they went to live and work. (except perhaps the British on the Costa del Sol but that is another story…)

Inventing a supposed problem like ‘not wanting to learn English’ is insulting, perpetuates myths about immigrants and causes divisions. It is also a welcome diversion for the ruling class from the cuts and the crisis of capitalism.

Learning a second or third language can be one of the most rewarding experiences a human being can have in their lives but it is not easy. Success depends on multiple factors such as age and opportunity. If migrants have the right to live and work in the UK they should also have the the right to access free language classes for themselves and family members if required.

Socialists must oppose the scapegoating of migrants and answer the myths about their language skills. We must also oppose any idea that minimum language standards should be imposed on anyone. Most migrants learn the language to the level for their needs. It is a completely invented ‘problem.’ I know of no children of immigrants who are not native speakers of the language of the country their parents have migrated to.

Outside of the UK the British are known as notoriously monolingual and unwilling to learn other languages. This has something to do with the position of English as a world language due to the dominance of USA capitalism during the 20th century. The majority of the world’s population are in fact bilingual and multi-lingual. Migrants in the UK especially from the Indian sub-continent are usually fluent in two or three languages. Instead of celebrating their contribution and the diversity it brings Miliband tail ends a party like UKIP.

Despite the fine phrases about a common culture and one nation Miliband’s speech is a cover for blaming immigrants for the problems of poverty and class inequality created by capitalism. Migrants cannot be beaten with a stick into a mythical British culture to be measured by their English language level. We reject any form of coercion when it comes to language.

Socialists need to respect the language rights of all and campaign for a properly funded ESOL service and fight for the unity of all working people whatever language or dialect they speak.

John Hird

Language Teacher – Basque Country

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3 responses to “Ed Miliband and the English Language

  1. a good blog, I am glad that someone has taken issue with this hypocrisy over the English language. There is so much rubbish spoken about the English language by politicians and it is sad to see Miliband joining in for perceived electoral gain, some uncomfortable facts;

    1. A certain Ralph(formerly Adolph) Miliband arrived in the UK a penniless Jewish immigrant from Belgium, unable to speak a word of English. He was only able to learn English in London thanks to the International Refugee Committee who paid for his lessons, and thank goodness they did because he went on to be a superb academic thinker who contributed richly to modern UK culture with the publishing of several wonderful books – all written in English by the way. Its a pity his son is not in the same intellectual tradition!

    2. The UK is the only country in the world to have its own publicly funded English Language Teaching organisation in the form of the British Council, for many years public funding in the UK has been used to fund the training of teachers in methodology of language teaching, however under the last Labour government (and under former Labour leader Kinnock who was British Council chair) the funding for ELT overseas was cut as other “areas” were prioritised by the British Council. DFID under Clare Short pulled the plug on several large scale publicly funded ELT programmes in developing countries, which would have trained thousands of state sector teachers. Currently ELT in the British Council is largely focused on profit making teaching centres like Madrid and Bangkok where fee paying students are charged premium rates. Socialists should demand a restoration of public sector funding for English overseas, as well as in the ESOL sector in the UK.

    3. lets not hear any more “lectures” on standards of English from the British ruling class. its a little known fact that Queen Victoria almost exclusively spoke German at home, and when she did speak English it was with grammatical mistakes and a heavy German accent – nothing wrong with that actually – but in all the films and TV dramas Victoria and the royal family are always portrayed as speaking with a “plummy” English accent, complete bollocks!

  2. Good points – totally agree.

  3. All “mainstream” politicians love to go on about what they call “integration”. Yet they are all opposed to the one thing that could actually deliver it – compulsory comprehensive education for every child.

    There are people in the UK who don’t want to “integrate” but you’re more likely to find them among the upper classes than in the inner cities.

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