It is always a curious thing, to see how Ed Miliband has been rehabilitated into some cuddly toy version of self-deprecating virtue, when he ran the most craven campaign on immigration in the 2015 general election. There is a discount on the centre and the left that applies when it comes to immigration that the right somehow does not get away with. The result, is that the right has won, not only in dictating the tone on immigration, but in creating so much mistrust that the work to be done to undo the damage is so daunting, that it is no wonder that politicians such as Hillary Clinton see no way out but to chime in at the same pitch.
A report by the Henry Jackson society on conspiracy theories around immigration makes for spirit-sapping reading. Not only do most voters in the UK and the US think that immigration is a bad thing, they think that there is a deliberate campaign to change the ethnic nature of the country. There is also a belief that politicians that speak up against immigration are silenced or treated unfairly, and that there is information on immigration that is being hidden or suppressed.
The danger of the mainstreaming of these, frankly far-right tropes, is that they can never be limited to the topic of immigration, they become about politics as a whole. They start corroding trust in a way that can only be fed if their paranoia is validated, and the vicious spiral continues. It creates a pull factor, especially in politically competitive times, that draws politicians to more indulgent xenophobic rhetoric and policy. It is why Theresa May continues, zombie like, to hammer the point about freedom of movement ending, to keep dog whistling about citizens of nowhere, to use phrases like “jumping the queue”. The political establishment, rather than leading on immigration, is following, trailing, out of breath, trying to catch up with whatever Ukip or Tommy Robinson or some random far-right Facebook anti-immigration meme doing the rounds. The message is not, here are the facts, the message is, whatever your facts are we will echo them back to you, if we get your vote.
Sound familiar? This was Milliband’s policy, to see which way the immigration vote was likely to come from and toss a mug with “Controls on Immigration” printed on it. But chasing the anti-immigration vote by whatever means ultimately cannibalises everyone apart from the most extreme voices. The only people left standing will be those that are happy to purvey complete fiction and alarmism. It’s even happening to Ukip, who have chased relevance all the way to Tommy Robinson’s arms. Nigel Farage turning his nose up at this is not because Farage has any limits, it’s because he actually knows better than Theresa May and Ed Miliband. He knows that that way lies obsolescence because he could never match and then outdo Tommy Robinson’s brand of thuggery and so will end up working for him, rather than holding his nose and benefiting from him.
There is now a cross pollination between conspiracy myths on political correctness, identity politics and Brexit that has created an environment in the UK where the only way to stop immigration dragging your party to the pits (and still lose because there is another party somewhere else that has told voters that you are still not hardline enough), is to confront it all head on. It sounds crazy I know, who wants to stop in the middle of the immigration race to the bottom and say, guys, I think we are running in the wrong direction? But the only way to know is to try. We are not even talking principle here, that’s how deep in the mire we are. This is the pragmatism that everyone bangs on about all the time while getting nowhere. There might now an alignment between taking a stand on immigration hysteria and political rehabilitation, because if you are a mainstream party, you can’t beat the right at its own game, and the same follows for the centre and the left.
One piece of the data in the report supports this view – in the UK, Leave voters are the most likely to believe that the government is involved in a conspiracy around immigration policy. After all this, all these reassurances that freedom of movement will end, after a vote to actually leave the EU was held, after all of May’s breathless reassurances, it’s still not enough. As the country lurches from one political crises to the next and parliament is in disarray and the pound teeters, Leave voters still think that they are being lied to. It will never be enough because mainstream politicians have lost control of the immigration narrative. Take back control of that, and everything else will follow.