The government is building a network of spies to make immigrants' lives impossible

Just try renting a house on a valid student visa after the latest proposals go through.

In the last four years, I have applied for three different types of visas and changed flats four times in the UK. Neither are prospects I ever look forward to. The last time I was searching for a flat was just a few months ago. I saw a cosy flat in Wapping and, walking around the canal and the pretty cobbled streets, decided to put down the "offer money". The landlord refused the offer on the grounds that I was on a student visa (I wasn't – I was on a post-study work visa, but not many people know the difference). I knew at the time that my housing and visa woes were not over.

So when I found another flat that I liked, I explained to the agents that I only had three months left on my current visa but was soon going to apply for a work visa sponsored by my employer. Luckily, I have a permanent job with a well-known employer and the agents accepted my explanation as a convincing one. But it was only that – luck. The agents could have just as easily rejected my explanation.

Every time I have looked for a flat, I have dreaded this situation. I can’t help but think how easily it could get worse if the proposals to make private landlords responsible for checking their tenants’ immigration status are implemented. It is no secret that housing is tight in London and so landlords have a lot more power and decision-making authority than tenants do. It is not unimaginable that if a measure making landlords liable for their tenants’ migrant status is introduced, landlords (and agents) would prefer to not let their properties to migrants at all to avoid "hassle".

These measures are among a number of absurd anti-immigration measures that have been discussed and proposed quite forcefully ever since the prospect of Romanians and Bulgarians being able to move to the UK to live and work has emerged. These have ranged from a negative publicity campaign (that is, "Don’t come to the UK! It’s a dump!") to not allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend schools in the country (because it’s completely the children’s fault for letting their parents come to the country and stay as illegal immigrants). The measures mentioned in the Queen’s speech, the third to be delivered since the Tories took charge, are yet more of the same.

The idea, if we are to draw any coherence in the proposed measures, seems to be to install proxy immigration officers within all vital services to make it difficult for migrants to stay in the country illegally and/or become "benefits tourists". However, the implications of these measures will be beyond just illegal immigrants; in practice, they will affect all immigrants (even the "good ones").

Any migrant in the UK (and I imagine in other countries too) will speak of how life seems to revolve around paperwork at every step of settling into some kind of normalcy – documents to prove your national identity, documents to prove your residence status, documents to prove your "leave to remain", documents to prove your finances and so on. Thankfully, one of the few places I haven’t been asked to produce my passport and visa in order to register is health centres. All I’ve ever been asked for is a proof of address (which is easy to produce, at least once the housing situation has been resolved). Healthcare is a basic human right and I have always liked to think that it is recognised as such in the UK which is why I don’t have to demonstrate the legality of my residence in the country to be able to see a GP.

But now there is speculation about even the NHS becoming another proxy immigration officer by being required to determine the status of migrants before allowing them access to treatment. Would this mean that with three months left on my visa, I would have either limited or no access to a GP? Worse, what would happen to vulnerable migrants, such as domestic workers, who often become "illegal immigrants" because of circumstances not under their control?

Under the new visa rules for migrant domestic workers, domestic workers are no longer allowed to change employers or the type of employment. Domestic workers are often made to work as slaves and abused by their employers. The most significant implication of these changes is that if a domestic worker runs away from the employer, they immediately become illegal immigrants – that is, if they try to escape violence and abuse, they face deportation. Requiring NHS to check residence status of migrants before offering them treatment would mean that healthcare would become yet another service they can’t turn to.

The government’s anti-immigration rhetoric is sloppy populism. The proposals have clearly not been thought through and demonstrate no understanding of current immigration issues, including those caused by the many complicated rules around visas. It needs to be recognised and acknowledged that migrant statuses are not always very straightforward. There are also more complicated situations, such as mine, where my visa was about to run out and I knew I’d apply for a new one but had no evidence to prove that. Or, more importantly, such as that of migrant domestic workers who have to often choose to put up with abuse to continue living in the country to support their families back home.

Obviously, with such complicated situations, the distinction between the "good hardworking legal immigrant" and the "bad illegal leaching immigrant" is not always a clear one, but this anti-immigration discourse creates and contributes to the sentiment that all immigrants are bad, undesirable and to be suspected and scrutinised all the time.

This growing web of proxy immigration officers – schools, landlords, NHS – not only belies the incompetence of the Border Agency but is also immorally and unashamedly targeting basic human rights without any relevance to or understanding of the practical situation. What’s going to be next? Show your resident card before you can buy food?

Papers, please… Photograph: Getty Images

Asiya Islam is a feminist blogger and currently works as equality and diversity adviser at the London School of Economics. She tweets as @asiyaislam.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.