Immigration is back

Underneath the tactical manoeuvring, the differences in this area between Labour and the Tories are

Despite voter concern about immigration falling to its lowest level in nine years, immigration is back as both political box office and political football.

The escalating problem of irregular migration from the Arab spring is reopening old arguments over "burden-sharing" in Europe, which Nick Clegg was dragged into on Tuesday. Back home David Cameron, having gone quiet on immigration over the winter, returned to the issue aggressively during the local elections.

Conservatives have often banged the immigration drum during a campaign, only to put it away once its job is done. But this time Cameron is likely to keep up the focus, taking a risk on a bit more Lib Dem unhappiness, in order to enjoy an ongoing political dividend.

The manner in which sensitive proposals on restricting family and marriage visas were trailed on Monday looks like an early sign of the tactics urged on Cameron by Tim Montgomerie (following Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher) of picking "big, defining fights on popular projects" such as immigration as the best way of avoiding his agenda being defined entirely by the spending cuts.

It also offers an ideal sop to the Conservative right, along with continuing to yoke the immigration cap to welfare reform – two of the Tory right's favourite coalition policies.

Labour, meanwhile, knows it can't avoid immigration for ever, and a bolder approach now could begin to detoxify the issue for it, tackling continued resentment among southern voters over Labour's record. Ed Miliband's wider strategy on the "squeezed middle" and the Blue Labour agenda provide him with new ways of talking about immigration that are more constructive than just saying, "Sorry, we let too many in."

Underneath the tactical manoeuvring, there is actually less polarisation in the two main parties' broad strategy on immigration than in previous years. In the four decades to the 2005 election, Labour was seen as basically pro-immigration, Conservatives basically anti. Since then, both have tried to shed those old images, and are competing to be identified with the centre ground: roughly, pro-immigration-but-less-of-it, a more balanced approach that is now routinely applied to the social and cultural as well as the economic aspects of immigration. Ed Miliband is continuing on these lines, and it must remain Cameron's preferred strategy, too – as well as his best chance of preserving coalition unity.

There are three main battlegrounds in the campaign to win the centre: overall numbers, the economy and culture. On the numbers, both parties have flagship policies with the same basic objective: more quality, less quantity. Labour's version, the points-based system, is more realistic about the nature of migration flows, the workings of the immigration system and the needs of the economy. In contrast, the Tories' cap is crude but easy to explain, and on an issue where trust has disappeared, this has so far proved decisive.

On the economy, Labour needs to win the argument again about immigration's contribution to overall growth and extend that argument to reducing the deficit. The pro-immigration line on the economy had a damaging air of complacency in recent years, but the evidence remains basically sound. The more radical debate is over the role of immigration in the complex dynamic at the lower end of the labour market.

Cameron's argument here is that if we reduce immigration while at the same time making it harder to live on benefits, this will shift large numbers of people from welfare to work. Miliband's argument, though less clearly put, seems to be that if wages and conditions improve, the result will be simultaneously to reduce the demand for low-paid migrants (at present the only ones willing to do some of these jobs) and to shift people from welfare to work, but by making work more attractive, rather than making living on benefits harder. Both arguments present low-skill immigration as a symptom of our real problems – welfare for the Tories, wage stagnation for Labour – rather than the cause.

On the final battleground of culture, the target is the voters identified in the recent Fear and Hope report as neither relaxed about immigration nor implacably opposed to it. For Miliband, the emergence of Blue Labour will help him keep his party's debate focused on this centre ground.

The Conservatives have a headstart here, but this could be undermined by two factors pushing them towards a more polarised position: the neocon approach of Michael Gove and others – evident in the more confrontational passages of Cameron's Munich speech – and the desire to perpetuate anger against Labour by talking up the problems of integration, rather than doing anything to solve them.

On all three battlegrounds – numbers, the economy and culture – narrative will be more important than policy or statistics. The Tories start with a clear advantage, but their narrative may become increasingly frayed by coalition dynamics, the realities of government, and an inability to control their instincts tugging them off to the right. Labour meanwhile has the makings of an alternative story, but it is a long way from being fully fleshed out.

All in all, the debate might be more interesting over the coming year than the cynics think.

Matt Cavanagh is associate director at IPPR.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.