What is it about those vans?

Surely Cameron's modernising senses detect the toxic smell given off when a Tory Home Secretary runs a "migrants go home" campaign.

I can’t stop thinking about the vans. I don’t like them. I don’t like mobile billboards being driven around London – soon to be extended to other regions – urging illegal migrants to contact the Home Office for help with repatriation. That isn’t what I’ve been thinking about. Not liking the vans was instinctive. Arriving at that position didn’t take any cognitive time and that, in itself, bothered me. Unthinking reactions are an unreliable guide in politics and journalism.

So the question that has been occupying my thoughts is why don’t I like the vans?

Mark Harper, the immigration minister, has today written a defence of the vans in the Daily Mail. His argument is that there is no racist message or intent. The purpose of the policy is to spread the word to illegal migrants that help is at hand if they want to go “home”. (It is, of course, possible that they now consider the UK home but that isn’t what the minister means.)

I accept one important element of Mr Harper’s case. There is nothing intrinsically racist about a policy of repatriating people who are in Britain illegally, nor is it necessarily racist to encourage them to leave, advise them that help exists to facilitate the process and remind them that failure to do so puts them on the wrong side of the law. By definition, the policy is race blind. It covers a person’s legal status not their identity.

I depart from the minister’s analysis when he asserts that the only intended audience for this policy is the migrants themselves. He says if the evidence shows the vans aren’t having a positive impact on voluntary repatriations, they will be withdrawn. They will of course be withdrawn at some point anyway. No campaign runs forever.

I doubt that many illegal migrants are itching to make themselves known to the Home Office. The decision to come to the UK without official permission or to overstay a visa is driven by a combination of despair and economic rationality. Whatever it is that has been left behind has been left behind for a reason. Some go back. Others see no incentive to do so. The offer of government help is probably peripheral to that calculation. The element of the Home Office message that has the most communicative value is the picture of handcuffs. Its value is as a threat.

Illegal migrants don’t need a visual aid to tell them to fear the police. I think Mr Harper is being disingenuous. At least part of the intended audience for this campaign is people who are British, who think there are too many immigrants here and want some of them to leave. The posters are to reassure them that the government is on the case.

That still doesn’t make the vans racist. This is an old problem. Not everyone who wants less immigration is a racist but every racist wants less immigration. So it is hard to craft a message for the concerned non-racist without earning unwanted nods of approval from the racist. Hard. Not impossible. Clarity of intent is vital. The vans fail this test because they are unlikely to have a discernible impact on numbers, while certain to reinforce the impression that the nation is overrun with illicit foreigners. The government accepts the view of many voters that Britain is full to the brim with people who don’t deserve to be here. That assertion doesn’t always recognise a difference between legal and illegal status, nor between economic migration and political asylum. For the Home Office to drive around brandishing a pair of handcuffs is to abet the suspicion that there is something generically illegitimate about being foreign-born in the UK.

Halfway through his defence of the posters, Mark Harper makes the following assertion:

In some neighbourhoods, uncontrolled immigration has put intolerable pressure on our country’s infrastructure: on schools, housing, and the NHS.

There follows a reiteration of the government’s determination to reduce net migration. At no point does the minister indicate that he has stopped talking about illegal migrants and started talking about all the other people living, working and paying taxes in Britain who happen not to be British. The government defence of the vans, in other words, is that they are part of a wider strategy to get the numbers down. By implication, legals and illegals are different categories of the same scourge, defined as being foreign and over here – with the prescribed remedy being departure.

So what? I am second-generation British, born to foreign parents. I have liberal views on immigration. That puts me in a minority and governments are under no obligation to craft their policies to satisfy my prejudices. The vans aren’t aimed at me and they aren’t aimed at people like me. That I react badly to them might even be taken as a sign of their success. There are Tories who measure the effectives of their message by the volume of anguished cries in bien pensant cosmopolitan commentary. What I find intriguing is that David Cameron used not to be one of those Tories.

There is no need here to rehearse the whole “modernisation” argument again. The story of how Cameron tried and largely failed to decontaminate his party's problematic brand has been told often enough, including by me in these pages.

No-one any longer expects the David Cameron who is Prime Minister in August 2013 to say the same things as the David Cameron who was newly elected Tory leader in December 2005. His protean nature – what Labour calls unprincipled slipperiness – is in the price. Most Tory MPs accept that their leader is unburdened by ideological consistency. It should come as no surprise if now Cameron signs off on policies that, in a former incarnation, he would have resisted.

Yet there is something qualitatively different about those bloody vans. They are a gimmick that could hardly have been better designed to cause the maximum affront for the minimum policy outcome. The impact on net migration will be negligible; the ugliness of the message is palpable – at least to those attuned to the offence. And I suspect Cameron is one of those people. He could not, I believe, have played the role of modern “progressive” Conservative in the period 2005-07 as well as he did without some possession of the liberal sensibilities that go with the part. No-one can have studied the toxic miasma that hangs over Tory party immigration policy as thoroughly has he has and come away without knowing the obnoxious potential of a “sneaky migrants go home” campaign run by a Conservative Home Secretary.

I’ll wager that Cameron gets it. He gets exactly why some people viscerally hate those vans. He knows what it is that makes some of us recoil in disgust. I bet he can smell it too – and yet he holds his nose because he has calculated that the stench only chokes people who probably won't vote Tory anyway. That shows a capacity for cynicism that should be worrying in a leader even to people who admire the Conservative party's current immigration policy.

The Home Office's van. Photo: gov.uk

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.