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
Getty
Show Hide image

Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change