Cameron's crackdown on immigrant housing is nothing to do with merit

We can't have immigrants "turning up" and "expecting" anything, can we?

David Cameron's crackdown on immigrants' access to social housing is to be announced, on Monday, with a lavish amount of inference and connotation. You won't hear the words "deserving" or "undeserving", but they'll be lurking round the edges all the same.

The new plan, he will say, will stop "any expectation" new migrants "can expect" the British taxpayer to "give them a home on arrival". It will stop someone "turning up" and "immediately gaining access" to social housing. Let's reorganise the system, he will apparently be saying, in terms of merit. But we are unlikely to hear him actually articulate the phrase, because this plan of his will do precisely the opposite.

The new proposals will make a social housing applicant from another country wait two to five years before going on a waiting list, regardless of how much they need it. In short, the plan is to take material need (the normal measure of whether or not someone deserves social housing) out of the equation.

That's why the announcement will rely so heavily on suggestion - a social housing process that is quick and easy - which you can "turn up" to - an immigrant who is "expecting" things (people who "expect" things always expect more than they deserve).

But getting social housing is always a long and difficult process, and often more so for immigrants. A Labour source told the Guardian that:

many councils already used existing powers to limit the access of immigrants to social housing.

The source said that 95% of immigrants lived in private rented accommodation, often of low quality. The greater problem was that employers often lured immigrants to this country by offering them places in low-grade houses, charging them extortionate rent, and then paying them unreasonably low wages that undercut the rate for local workers.

The plan will have an exception - Britons who have had to move for family or work reasons - but as Gaby Hisliff tweeted earlier today:

The Bishop of Dudley puts it best in today's Observer:

The tone of the current debate suggests that it is better for 10 people with a legitimate reason for coming to this country to be refused entry than for one person to get in who has no good cause. It is wholly disproportionate as a response. It is especially galling in Holy Week, when Christians are remembering how Jesus himself became the scapegoat in a political battle, to see politicians vying with each other in just such a process.

He adds:

Studies show that the vast majority of new arrivals to the UK enhance and enrich our society, both economically and culturally. The true threats to our national wellbeing lie not with those who come to visit or make their lives here but with the increasing gap between the rich and poor among us.

But the extra appeal almost misses the point. Our welfare system should not be there to provide only for those who we think will "enrich our society", but for those who deserve it - which simply means those who need it most.

Cameron will announce a change to social housing policy for immigrants. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.