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Westminster may dabble in xenophobia, but the reality is that racism isn’t popular

Britain’s immigration debate would look very different if ministers overcame their fear of the fringe and trusted voters with a more honest account of the country we have.

A van carrying the Home Office's message to illegal immigrants: 'Go home or face arrest.'

Painted in a certain light, Britain in the summer of 2013 can be made to look pretty nasty. Government vans crawled the streets with a threat to migrants conveyed in the tone of a police state and the idiom of the far right: “Go home or face arrest.” Politicians blame every malaise on foreign interlopers: new arrivals with jobs must be jumping the queue; those without work must be gobbling benefits and hogging hospital beds. Westminster cringes before Ukip, a party that lubricates intolerance with theatrical pub cheer.

But with a change of palette, the same country can be construed differently. The menacing vans have been steered off the streets by the threat of a legal challenge, exposing a failure of process at the Home Office. The stunt has been quietly disowned by Downing Street. (“The Prime Minister probably didn’t even know it was happening,” a senior Tory adviser tells me.) Even Nigel Farage affected distaste at a “nasty, Big Brother” device.

The anxiety about immigration that shows up in opinion polls is not matched by an exclusion of immigrants and their families from British culture. Only a year ago, the nation cheered Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill, flagbearers for multi-ethnic Britishness, as its Olympic king and queen. TV audiences elected a Hungarian dance troupe as this year’s winner of Britain’s Got Talent. It isn’t a scientific reading of the collective mood but it suggests we are some way off from nationalist frenzy.

For every ministerial dabble in the vilification of migrants, there is a caveat of admiration for the contribution that foreigners have made to the enrichment of these isles. That is the paradox of British political xenophobia – the racist element in populism must be discreet because overt racism isn’t popular.

There is plainly some ugly bigotry expressed in Ukip’s rise but the stronger animus is reserved for politicians from other parties who are accused of colluding in an open-border policy and sneering at anyone who objects. Conservative and Labour MPs say the pro-Farage voters they meet on the doorstep barely distinguish between a blue and a red rosette. They are treated as interchangeable logos on one governing machine.

So there may be less mileage than Conservative strategists think in boasting that the Tories are slamming shut the gates supposedly left open by Labour. When official statistics show net migration falling, voters don’t believe it. Besides, the transitional controls on migration from Bulgaria and Romania – EU members since 2007, whose access to the British jobs market has been delayed – will be lifted in January 2014. Ukip officials barely contain their glee at the unravelling this portends for Conservative claims to be running a “tough” border regime.

Labour suffers from a complex of agonies over immigration. It knows it has lost thousands of votes over the issue. The political computation of that number is then muddled by contradictory impulses: anti-racism as an ethical hallmark of left politics; a tendency to be automatically pro-European for fear of overlapping with Little Englanders’ cartoon hatred of Brussels; a liberal conviction that enterprising migrants are good for the economy and society; a less liberal distaste for the way globalisation treats labour as a fluid resource, sloshing across borders at capital’s behest.

Then there is Ed Miliband’s background as the son of Jewish refugees from the Nazis. The Labour leader is obliged by political reality to address resentment of mass immigration and driven by his upbringing to see the migrants’ side of the story. That could be a recipe for indecision. It may also be a useful combination, because immigrant communities in marginal seats could decide the outcome in a closely fought general election.

Non-white voters do not have uniform political preferences but there is a clear pattern of mistrust of the Tories. There are Conservatives, mostly in urban constituencies with thin majorities, who see this as a long-term crisis for the party. Their concerns have been swept aside in the tactical dash to plug the leak of angry white votes to Ukip.

By contrast, Labour’s position – interpreted generously – is to focus on the causes of antiimmigrant feeling: low wages; a housing crisis that breeds resentment of foreign families in council properties; the skills shortage in an army of unemployed youth. Miliband’s aim, say his friends, is to move the conversation away from race and on to systemic failings in an economy that permits the routine exploitation of migrants and neglect of local labour forces.

That was the point the shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, tried to make in a speech on 12 August but the message was garbled. The intervention was erected on a platform of factual error, resulting in an overnight rewrite and a panicky retreat from attacks on corporate employers, encouraging the less generous interpretation of Labour’s position as an unprincipled shambles.

That is unfortunate, because Miliband’s nuanced line, treating immigration anxiety as a function of deep-rooted economic insecurity, deserves an airing. Britain is not a nasty country. Nor is it poised to instal a Ukip government, as more level-headed Tories can see. One Conservative backbencher, lamenting his party’s fringe obsession, recently told me: "People talk about Nigel Farage’s great charisma. Actually, I think a lot of people see him as a bit of a dick."

Westminster devotes more energy to decoding what goes on in the minds of the one in ten voters who might back Ukip than it does to understanding the larger number of people who know that Faragism isn’t the solution. There is in any society a bitter, defensive streak that can be brought out by fear and a generous side that thrives on trust. Britain’s immigration debate would look very different if ministers overcame their fear of the fringe and trusted voters with a more honest account of the country we have and the kind of country most of us want.