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
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.