Immigrants are taking the flak for the government's failings

David Cameron is using a sensitive and important issue purely for political advantage.

Politicians have never been good at talking about immigration. From Thatcher's concerns of being "swamped" by immigrants to Gordon Brown's “British jobs for British Workers” speech, the issue has long been embedded within a perverted political narrative- one in which migrants are characterised as leeches, sucking away at the fruits good Englishmen have bequeathed upon them.

David Cameron's speech this week did little to distance itself from this. Still tormented by the Eastleigh defeat which saw the Ukip surge trouncing the Conservatives, the Prime Minister unveiled a new set of policies assured to win back the disenchanted. And while the favourite buzzwords needed for any immigration speech were present (integration, assimilation, border controls, to name a few), he also used the opportunity to exert some of the harshest policy proposals we've seen come out of CCHQ for a while. Under the new proposals, a migrant job seeker can only receive assistance for six months, will have to face more difficult residency tests, and will have less access to the NHS without private health insurance.

Some progressives may accept these proposals. In a time when British families are reducing their living standards, migrants also need to play their part - big society and all that. Besides, voters have consistently worried about immigration, and now the government are taking action. Further, we're just following the Canadians, and everybody loves them.

The insidious bite in Cameron's speech really came through when he spoke about social housing, where he suggested a waiting period between two and five years for new migrants wishing to get on the waiting list. Of course, this policy responded to the popular notion that immigrants not only get on the social housing list faster, but also get better residences compared to native Britons. Triumphantly, the Prime Minister claimed that his government would end the "something for nothing culture" which apparently all immigrants (except for the select few political strategists like to use to assert they aren't racist) ascribe to.

In fact, this proposal actually shows how badly the government have failed to resolve issues in social housing, jobs and welfare. And with the most recent failings - the AAA downgrade and Osborne's flagship "help to buy" policy heavily criticised following the budget, Cameron is now using immigrants as a way to divert attention from his government's incompetence.

Cameron's argument suggests that the number of migrants coming to the UK inevitably causes a shortfall of social housing. Ergo, restrict access to social housing and the problem is resolved. Except, he chooses to ignore the decrease in social housing resulting from Thatcher's "Right to Buy", or the "Right to Acquire" scheme, of which its legacy speaks only of unaffordable rents and the lowest levels of home ownership since 1987. It also disregards the lack of new affordable homes being built - an issue where the Prime Minister's own party bears a great deal of responsibility. Indeed, the crisis of social housing is not immigrants, but rather the venomous Tory cocktail of greedy landlords and a government more than happy to facilitate them in the name of good business. Depressingly enough, George Osborne's plan is likely to make this existing situation even worse.

The second misappropriation is Cameron's supposed stance on the "something for nothing" culture, where immigrants supposedly plot from their homelands to come to Britain and live luxuriously off the state. The only problem with this, is that it isn't true. In fact, the DWP indicated in 2011 that less than three per cent of benefit claimants were from EU countries. Furthermore, both the 2011 Oxford Migration Observatory report and the ONS Labour Market Statistics report last year indicate that a majority of migrants come to the UK with the intention to work (pdf). Seeing that twice as many foreign migrants were recorded in employment compared to those of British-born origin, it seems clear that these migrants would not only be unable to claim benefits, but would also not be eligible for social housing either.

Despite the statistics, Cameron, and many other senior ministers are continuing to peddle populist rhetoric in order to win back voters. While this might be a great idea to Tory strategists and party backbenchers, it will do little to win the hearts of young Tory moderates, or reinstate trust in the government itself. The truth is that the Prime Minister - once a refreshing change for the Conservatives - is now using a sensitive issue for political advantage. Quite frankly, both British nationals and immigrants deserve a lot better.

David Cameron delivering his speech on immigration in Ipswich earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images

Hussein Kesvani is a journalist and the co-host of the No Country For Brown Men podcast. He tweets @HKesvani.

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.