Politicians have never been good at talking about immigration. From Thatcher’s concerns of being “swamped” by immigrants to Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British Workers” speech, the issue has long been embedded within a perverted political narrative- one in which migrants are characterised as leeches, sucking away at the fruits good Englishmen have bequeathed upon them.
David Cameron’s speech this week did little to distance itself from this. Still tormented by the Eastleigh defeat which saw the Ukip surge trouncing the Conservatives, the Prime Minister unveiled a new set of policies assured to win back the disenchanted. And while the favourite buzzwords needed for any immigration speech were present (integration, assimilation, border controls, to name a few), he also used the opportunity to exert some of the harshest policy proposals we’ve seen come out of CCHQ for a while. Under the new proposals, a migrant job seeker can only receive assistance for six months, will have to face more difficult residency tests, and will have less access to the NHS without private health insurance.
Some progressives may accept these proposals. In a time when British families are reducing their living standards, migrants also need to play their part – big society and all that. Besides, voters have consistently worried about immigration, and now the government are taking action. Further, we’re just following the Canadians, and everybody loves them.
The insidious bite in Cameron’s speech really came through when he spoke about social housing, where he suggested a waiting period between two and five years for new migrants wishing to get on the waiting list. Of course, this policy responded to the popular notion that immigrants not only get on the social housing list faster, but also get better residences compared to native Britons. Triumphantly, the Prime Minister claimed that his government would end the “something for nothing culture” which apparently all immigrants (except for the select few political strategists like to use to assert they aren’t racist) ascribe to.
In fact, this proposal actually shows how badly the government have failed to resolve issues in social housing, jobs and welfare. And with the most recent failings – the AAA downgrade and Osborne’s flagship “help to buy” policy heavily criticised following the budget, Cameron is now using immigrants as a way to divert attention from his government’s incompetence.
Cameron’s argument suggests that the number of migrants coming to the UK inevitably causes a shortfall of social housing. Ergo, restrict access to social housing and the problem is resolved. Except, he chooses to ignore the decrease in social housing resulting from Thatcher’s “Right to Buy”, or the “Right to Acquire” scheme, of which its legacy speaks only of unaffordable rents and the lowest levels of home ownership since 1987. It also disregards the lack of new affordable homes being built – an issue where the Prime Minister’s own party bears a great deal of responsibility. Indeed, the crisis of social housing is not immigrants, but rather the venomous Tory cocktail of greedy landlords and a government more than happy to facilitate them in the name of good business. Depressingly enough, George Osborne’s plan is likely to make this existing situation even worse.
The second misappropriation is Cameron’s supposed stance on the “something for nothing” culture, where immigrants supposedly plot from their homelands to come to Britain and live luxuriously off the state. The only problem with this, is that it isn’t true. In fact, the DWP indicated in 2011 that less than three per cent of benefit claimants were from EU countries. Furthermore, both the 2011 Oxford Migration Observatory report and the ONS Labour Market Statistics report last year indicate that a majority of migrants come to the UK with the intention to work (pdf). Seeing that twice as many foreign migrants were recorded in employment compared to those of British-born origin, it seems clear that these migrants would not only be unable to claim benefits, but would also not be eligible for social housing either.
Despite the statistics, Cameron, and many other senior ministers are continuing to peddle populist rhetoric in order to win back voters. While this might be a great idea to Tory strategists and party backbenchers, it will do little to win the hearts of young Tory moderates, or reinstate trust in the government itself. The truth is that the Prime Minister – once a refreshing change for the Conservatives – is now using a sensitive issue for political advantage. Quite frankly, both British nationals and immigrants deserve a lot better.