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The truth behind our political parties’ immigration policy arms race

This year, all the main parties have been competing over who can curb benefits for migrants the most. Why is this their approach?

This year has seen an immigration policy arms race among the main Westminster parties. But policy-wise, it’s more specific than a question of who can generally talk the toughest on immigration. Each party has proposed policies on how far they would curb benefits for EU migrants.

The coalition has already clamped down on what migrants are allowed to claim, introducing a three-month wait for migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) to claim Jobseekers’ Allowance, child benefit, and child tax credits. To stay longer than three months, they have to be in work or actively seeking it. And from April this year, new EEA migrant jobseekers have no longer been allowed housing benefit.

This was all part of a political race to who could promise the fewest benefits for migrants. Labour weighed in with a proposal for a two-year benefits delay. David Cameron responded with four years. In his Financial Times article laying out his view on immigration, Nick Clegg also backed curbing benefits for migrants, writing: “We should make sure that only migrants who have worked and contributed can receive the support. New jobseekers should not be eligible [for universal credit]”.

But why attack immigrants via benefits, when they overwhelmingly move to Britain to work and study?
 

There’s nothing else they can say

Ukip provides a simple answer to the question it poses about reducing net migration: it calls for Britain to exit the European Union. This would stop Britain being obliged to host EU migrants, as any renegotiation of our EU membership would be unlikely to overhaul the core freedom of movement principle.

So David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – all of whom currently support the UK remaining in the EU – cannot realistically promise to block EU migrants from coming to Britain without coming out in favour of leaving the EU. So their only option is to come down increasingly harder on the welfare available to these migrants.
 

It’s conveniently popular

It’s useful for Cameron et al that the only policy they can pursue in terms of immigration is most popular among voters. Polls recording attitudes to immigration have long shown that respondents see it as first and foremost a drain on the welfare state, ahead of any concerns about migrants taking their potential jobs. ComRes polling this time last year ahead of Romania and Bulgaria joining the EU’s freedom of movement area showed this clearly:
 

Click on table to enlarge

 

Click on table to enlarge
 

This year's NatCen Social Research British Social Attitudes survey showed 61 per cent of British people think immigrants from the EU should have to wait three years or more before they are allowed to claim welfare benefits. And that was before Cameron mooted four years.

This perception doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation; the concept of “benefits tourism” is a myth. While it is convenient for our politicians that the most popular approach to immigration policy – cracking down on benefits – is the one approach they can take without calling for Britain to leave the EU, this will cause problems in the long term. It is a “solution” to a problem that doesn’t exist. Not only will it do little to change immigration numbers in the way the rhetoric suggests – it’s also unlikely to change attitudes.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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