Immigration has ignited two segments of the electorate: columnists and leader-writers. Across the spectrum of opinion, from the raw racism of the Daily Mail to the head-shaking liberalism of the centre-left broadsheets, views about the rights and wrongs of the issue have poured forth, at the prompting of the Conservatives. Yet there is little sign that immigration has altered voting intentions, or the likely outcome of 5 May. It has inspired rivers of ink, not rivers of blood.
On the face of it, the Tory attempt to play the race card has been a psephological blunder. It may have animated a core of right-wing voters, and protected the Tories’ flank against the United Kingdom Independence Party, but it appears mostly to have succeeded in driving disenchanted liberals and Muslims back to the Labour fold.
“The right-wing press turns out to be new Labour’s best friend,” says the Observer columnist Will Hutton. “The British people are small ‘p’ progressive, and the press has consistently overestimated their degree of racism. But it has driven some supporters back into the new Labour coalition.”
This is one of the reasons Labour is choosing to ride out the immigration issue, which seems to be doing the Conservatives as much harm as good. All the polls show that people care more about the economy and public services than about immigration, so Labour is sticking to its turf. Labour’s basic response to the Conservative line is one of distant disdain.
The result is that, for all the heat, there is little light being cast on what is an important issue for an affluent nation with a falling birth rate in a global economy. The Conservatives have raised the issue, but only in a cartoonish fashion, which lumps together legal immigrants with asylum-seekers, travellers and yobs. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are silent.
This is a pity, because there are substantive questions at stake. Some Labour commentators have attempted to unpick the Tory statistics. This is the wrong approach. Immigration is indeed on the rise. If anything, the Conservatives are understating it. The much-quoted figure of 150,000, cited in their manifesto, is drawn from data on 2003 prepared by the Office for National Statistics. This figure is the balance (actually 151,000) between a net outflow of British citizens of 85,000 and a net inflow of non-Brits of 236,000.
Over a longer time-frame, it is clear that in the past decade, there has been a growth in net migration. The number of people leaving has increased – by about 100,000 a year – but at the same time, the number of people entering the country has also increased, by roughly 250,000 a year. The net result has been to add more than a million to the UK’s population in the ten years to 2002, compared with a rise of just 240,000 in the previous decade and a net outflow of 430,000 between 1973 and 1982. If the movement of British citizens is taken out of the equation altogether, the story gets even better for the right-wingers. If I were advising Michael Howard, I would suggest the following statistic: since Labour came to power, one million non-British immigrants have joined the population of the UK.
The argument against the Conservatives has to be won on its merits, not its maths. It is worth saying, however, that the 151,000 figure for 2003 amounts to 0.25 per cent of the population. About 5 per cent of the British population was born abroad, compared to 9 per cent of Germans, 12 per cent of Americans and 23 per cent of Australians (note to Tory HQ: Manchester is not like Melbourne).
The deeper point is that, with our fertility rate dropping and baby boomers ageing, we need more working-age adults to sustain the economy and fiscal health – and immigrants now account for 80 per cent of our slight population growth. Moreover, immigrants are from younger age cohorts: there is net emigration among the UK’s over-45s.
Britain is a trading nation, a global nation, a cosmopolitan nation, a modern nation, facing the future with confidence. The increase in both immigration and emigration reflects the widening of the world’s horizons. We have an economy that needs labour. The case for immigration at current levels is compelling.
But Labour won’t make it. It has been left to Rupert Murdoch to voice the staunch and straightforward critique of the Conservative policy of capping the number of entrants. “If you bring skilled people into the country, it would enrich the whole country and create a lot more jobs,” he said recently at a conference in Los Angeles. Labour’s fear is that Howard’s rhetoric, which is proving too right-wing for many of his own front bench, will resonate in a core part of the electorate: among low-income whites. Yet this is the group of whose votes Labour should now be most certain, because it is the one for which the Blair-Brown governments have done the most. Tax credits, the minimum wage, action zones, regeneration schemes, training programmes, New Deals, Sure Start – all are aimed at precisely the group in contention.
If Labour is an alliance of middle-class liberals and the working class, it is the latter that has done best out of the first two Labour terms. The problem is that Labour has been reluctant to trumpet these policies for what they are – redistribution to the neediest Brits – for fear of upsetting the suburbs. It has been socialism by stealth.
And so now the wheel has come full circle. Labour’s reluctance to highlight the policies that have hugely benefited the group most politically vulnerable to Howard’s tactics on immigration has left it unwilling or unable to tackle this sotto voce xenophobia head-on. In short-run electoral terms, the calculated silence makes sense. In the long run, it is a progressive opportunity lost.
Howard has accused Tony Blair of “pussyfooting” around on the issue of immigration. The accusation is quite fair. Labour has been defensive. But at this stage of the campaign, it is clear that the Conservative tactics are backfiring. The opposition is discovering to its cost that the Britain of 2005 is not like Australia or Alabama, or even the Britain of 1979.
Now is the time for Labour to come at Howard with its claws out. No, it is not racist – necessarily – to impose limits on immigration. In the absence of any other decent rationale, however, it almost certainly is. And it certainly is stupid, short-sighted, ignorant and to the detriment of the long-term well-being of this nation. It is time Labour came out and said so. This is not the first election in which a party has tried to play the race card. By taking the fight to the Tories and winning, Labour can ensure that it is the last.