David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration at the Institute for Government. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Cameron's crackdown on immigrant benefits won't help the Tories

The PM is fuelling the perception that "benefit tourism" is a problem while still allowing himself to be outflanked by Ukip. 

Just six months after the government's last crackdown on "benefit tourism", David Cameron has launched another. In an article for the Telegraph, he announces that the period of time EU migrants can claim welfare payments for will be reduced from six months to three (after an initial three-month waiting period). He writes:

We’re also making sure people come for the right reasons – which has meant addressing the magnetic pull of Britain’s benefits system. We changed the rules so that no one can come to this country and expect to get out-of-work benefits immediately; they must wait at least three months. And we are announcing today that we are cutting the time people can claim these benefits for. It used to be that European arrivals could claim Jobseeker’s Allowance or child benefit for a maximum of six months before their benefits would be cut off, unless they had very clear job prospects. I can tell Telegraph readers today that we will be reducing that cut-off point to three months, saying very clearly: you cannot expect to come to Britain and get something for nothing.

The move is not a response to a policy problem (a recent study by the EU Commission found that"so-called benefit tourism" is "neither widespread nor systematic") but a Crosby-inspired attempt to respond to public anxiety over immigration and to neutralise the threat from Ukip. 

It is doubtful, however, that it will do anything to help the Tories. By devoting more time to this issue, Cameron is fuelling the perception that immigrants are benefit-hungry wastrels (weren't they meant to be taking "all our jobs"?) while responding with measures that most will regard as inadequate. If welfare tourism is such a problem why not stop migrants from claiming benefits at all? Indeed, why not shut the door to them entirely? The latter option, of course, is not available to Cameron due to the EU principle of the free movement of labour, which is precisely why he is doing his party no favours by raising the salience of this issue. 

Rather than perpetuating public fear over immigration, to the benefit of Ukip alone, the PM would be better off telling voters the truth: that migrants are less likely than British citizens to claim benefits and that they contribute more in taxes than they extract in welfare. An OECD report last year, for instance, found that they make a net contribution of 1.02 per cent of GDP or £16.3bn to the UK, since they are younger and more economically active than the population in general.

It's for these reasons that, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has shown, we will need more, not fewer immigrants, if we are to cope with the challenge of an ageing population and the resultant increase in the national debt. Should Britain maintain net migration of around 140,000 a year (a level significantly higher than the government's target of "tens of thousands"), debt will rise to 99 per cent of GDP by 2062-63. But should it reduce net migration to zero, debt will surge to 174 per cent. As the OBR concluded, "[There is] clear evidence that, since migrants tend to be more concentrated in the working-age group relatively to the rest of the population, immigration has a positive effect on the public sector’s debt…higher levels of net inward migration are projected to reduce public sector net debt as a share of GDP over the long term relative to the levels it would otherwise reach."

One might expect a fiscal conservative like Cameron to act on such advice but, as so often in recent times, the PM is determined to put politics before policy. The irony is that, by allowing Ukip to claim yet another victory, he isn't even succeeding in these terms.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The public like radical policies, but they aren't so keen on radical politicians

Around the world, support for genuinely revolutionary ideas is strong, but in the UK at least, there's less enthusiasm for the people promising them.

You’re probably a getting a little bored of the litany of talking head statistics: trust in elected officials, parliament, the justice system and even democracy itself has been falling steadily for years and is at record lows. Maybe you’ve seen that graph that shows how people born after 1980 are significantly less likely than those born in 1960 to think that living in a democracy is ‘essential’. You’ve possibly heard of the ‘Pasokification’ of the centre-left, so-named the collapse of the once dominant Greek social democratic party Pasok, a technique being aggressively pursued by other centre-left parties in Europe to great effect.    

And so, goes the logic, there is a great appetite for something different, something new. It’s true! The space into which Trump et al barged leaves plenty of room for others: Beppe Grillo in Italy, Spanish Podemos, Bernie Sanders, Jean Luc Melanchon, and many more to come.

In my new book Radicals I followed movements and ideas that in many cases make someone like Jeremy Corbyn seem positively pedestrian: people who want to dismantle the nation state entirely, use technology to live forever, go off grid. All these ideas are finding fertile ground with the frustrated, disillusioned, and idealistic. The challenges of coming down the line – forces of climate change, technological change, fiscal crunch, mass movements of people – will demand new types of political ideas. Radical, outsider thinking is back, and this does, in theory at least, offer a chink of light for Corbyn’s Labour.

Polling last week found pretty surprising levels of support for many of his ideas. A big tax on high earners, nationalising the railways, banning zero hours contracts and upping the minimum wage are all popular. Support for renewable energy is at an all-time high. According to a recent YouGov poll, Brits actually prefer socialism to capitalism, a sentiment most strongly held among younger people.

There are others ideas too, which Corbyn is probably less likely to go for. Stopping benefits entirely for people who refuse to accept an offer of employment is hugely popular, and in one recent poll over half of respondents would be happy with a total ban on all immigration for the next two years. Around half the public now consistently want marijuana legalised, a number that will surely swell as US states with licenced pot vendors start showing off their dazzling tax returns.

The BNP effect used to refer to the problem the far-right had with selling their ideas. Some of their policies were extremely popular with the public, until associated with the BNP. It seems as though the same problem is now afflicting the Labour brand. It’s not the radical ideas – there is now a genuine appetite for those who think differently – that’s the problem, it’s the person who’s tasked with delivering them, and not enough people think Corbyn can or should. The ideal politician for the UK today is quite possibly someone who is bold enough to have genuinely radical proposals and ideas, and yet appears extremely moderate, sensible and centrist in character and temperament. Perhaps some blend of Blair and Corbyn. Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? But this is politics, 2017. Anything is possible.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

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