Everyone is still talking about the lessons of Eastleigh. But the worst lesson that any mainstream political party could learn, in the light of the UKIP’s surge, is the necessity to move right on immigration. It is true that the issue was often raised on the doorstep. And, since 2010, opinion polls have shown high levels of public concern. But what public policy needs is common sense policies on immigration
Sadly, immigration has served as a proxy for race in the British political narrative for so long, that it is still not possible to totally deracialise it. This is true, even though the would-be immigrants currently causing anxiety are eastern European. And there is a small group of people who use immigrant as a generic term for all kinds of people, like refugees, asylum seekers and third generation families from the British Commonwealth, who are not immigrants at all.
But the experience of the Republican Party in the United States is an object lesson in how fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric can rebound. They lost the 2012 presidential election, not just because legally settled Hispanics voted against them in record numbers. But because other voters of immigrant descent (like the Chinese and those from the Indian sub-continent) also fled the party. They read the relentlessly anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric of the party as being hostile to all immigrants, however settled and respectable.
Effective immigration policies are more challenging to implement than the rhetoric of Nigel Farage suggests. The Tory Home Secretary, Theresa May, boasts about cutting the number of immigrants. But in reality, half the drop is down to students (with calamitous results for our universities), while 30 per cent of the net migration reduction is down to more British people leaving. No wonder the coalition’s opinion poll lead on immigration is collapsing.
Anti-immigrant policies can have contrary and embarrassing results. The last Labour government tried to deter asylum seekers by giving them cash vouchers instead of money. But vouchers were widely criticised as both stigmatising and impractical. Nor did they do anything to bring down the numbers of asylum seekers – because these are people compelled to flee by war and economic devastation. So the policy was eventually scrapped. Now the Tories are looking at denying access to the NHS to certain categories of immigrant, asylum seeker and visitor. No one defends health tourism. But doctors and GPs are emphatically not interested in being immigration officers. More importantly, if you drive certain members of the population away from seeking treatment for communicable disease, there is a real danger to public health.
It should not surprise anyone that people whose parents or grandparents were immigrants complain about immigration. Anti-immigrant fervour is actually a proxy for economic discontent and will inevitably rise in a recession. As Ed Miliband has pointed out, immigrants don’t cause low wages; unregulated labour markets and predatory employers do. There is no path to victory for the Labour Party in 2015 through the thickets of anti-immigrant politics and I am confident that Ed Miliband knows this. There is certainly a pressing need to sort out the chaos at the UK Border Agency. And I warmly welcome the practical policies that my party is shaping around the real discontents of ordinary people; ranging from building more homes to the principle of a living wage.