Immigration is the one issue where we really do get the politicians we deserve. Photo: Getty
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Politicians will never please the public on immigration, so they should stop trying

On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it. 

There is one hot political topic where the two most honest politicians also happen to be the politicians we despise the most. Indeed, we regularly say we value frankness from our elected representatives yet if this issue is anything to go by we actually respond to something quite different: an emotional pandering to our most illogical prejudices. 
 
The topic in question is immigration, an issue we are supposedly "not allowed to talk about" but which almost every week results in some cheap and counterproductive initiative flowing from the mouth of a politician. Yesterday it was Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves talking about restricting benefits for migrants until they’ve worked. Last week it was David Cameron talking about the supposed "magnetic pull" of the British benefits system. Next month we’ll probably hear of a fresh "get tough" announcement depriving immigrants of some other "entitlement" they rarely use.   
 
It should be obvious as to why politicians like to blow the infamous dog-whistle on immigration and drip-feed the press an endless stream of announcements on "restrictions" and "crack downs". In almost every opinion poll immigration is near to the top in terms of issues the public say they are concerned about. And when they say "concerned" they invariably mean pulling up the drawbridge on fortress Britain. According to a poll from January of this year, three quarters of Britons wanted a reduction in the level of immigration, with 56 per cent calling for a big fall in the number of people allowed into the country.  
 
Considering that a majority of recent immigrants are from other countries in the European Union, there are two things that any honest politician can take from this: either Britain must pull out of Europe right away or we must accept the free movement of people and get on with it. All talk by David Cameron of reforming the EU to allow Britain to opt out of free movement is hogwash – however much the Daily Mail thunders the rest of Europe won’t stand for it. We can therefore either cling to the sepia-tinged illusion that Britain can live (and live well) without immigration or we can accept immigration as a fact of life and grapple with the really important issues like integration.  
 
There are only two politicians willing to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion. Nick Clegg, the consummate pro-European, has (in the past at least) been unafraid to point out that immigration is good for Britain. Meanwhile Nigel Farage, who wants to take Britain out of Europe entirely, says (again truthfully) that you cannot significantly reduce immigration unless Britain leaves the European Union. Both, in their different ways, are correct. And yet their reward for the honesty we say we so badly want is to be the most despised politicians in the country – albeit for quite different reasons. 
 
Indeed, for all we claim to hate the political class for their dishonesty, immigration is the one issue where we are quite comfortable with being lied to. We know very well that migrants pay in to the exchequer more than they take out; and yet still we demand that politicians "crack down" on the mythical concept of "benefit tourism" (there was no evidence of widespread benefit tourism by EU nationals, according to a report last year by the European Commission). We know that Britons are more likely (two-and-a-half times more likely) to be claiming working age benefits than non-UK nationals, but still we buy into racist tabloid stereotypes about opportunistic foreigners ready to steal the shirt off our collective back. We cite free movement as our favourite thing about the EU, yet we grumble into our newspaper when a citizen of another country actually decides to exercise that right. 
 
This probably explains why, while we say we want a large reduction in immigration, we oppose the only sure method of actually bringing it about – leaving the EU.
 
It’s a cliché to say that we get the politicians we deserve, but immigration is the one issue where we really do. We want the European Union and the fiscal benefits of immigration but without any of the perceived drawbacks. We want the minimum wage cleaners, the nannies and the glass collectors but without the sound of the foreign voices on the daily commute. We say we don’t want migrants coming here to "steal our jobs" but we do nothing about it because, deep down, we know they are coming to Britain and paying for our pensions.
 
The next time you hear David Cameron or Ed Miliband making unkeepable promises about immigration, or pledging to "listen to genuine concerns" (whatever that entails) bear in mind that they are only doing what most people seemingly want them to do: using macho rhetoric that signifies nothing. On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it. We want immigration but without the immigrants. Try and triangulate your way out of that one.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot ForwardHe tweets @J_Bloodworth.

 

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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