Today’s newslinks include a dire warning from Lord Tebbit. Our venerable former chairman argues that unless the UK Independence Party implodes in quite spectacular fashion between now and May, they will cost us the general election.
The reason, inevitably, is immigration. Specifically, the Government’s failure to meet the Conservative election promise to bring net migration into the UK down to the level of “tens of thousands” per year. This is primarily due to the current terms of our membership of the European Union, he continues, and will sow fresh doubts in the minds of Tory-UKIP waverers about David Cameron’s ability to get tough with the EU in any future renegotiation of our membership.
This is, with the greatest respect to Lord Tebbit, an argument that has been aired many times before and would not normally warrant additional commentary. But as a rather mystified radio producer informed me yesterday, the next election has basically kicked off with the New Year – and five months of mishandling migration could sow the seeds for another five years of political misery.
So how might the Tories – and any party not committed to a strident open- or closed-border position – try to deal with the subject in a way which addresses people’s legitimate concerns without fuelling misconceptions or further eroding public trust?
First thing, we should concede one of Tebbit’s basic points: the net migration pledge was stupid. Making grand promises about a topic where you have surrendered your policy levers is never a good idea. Tempting as it is to win the news cycle for a few days in a hard-fought campaign, in the end that sort of pledge just leaves voters suspicious of us and more open-minded to “plain speakers” like UKIP.
Second, we should admit that there are some voters whose votes simply aren’t worth the chasing. This is not to come over all Matthew Parris by any means – but there’s no shame in recognising that whilst it isn’t racist to be concerned about immigration, what racist voters we have usually are. This blog explains how we can break down party support by migration attitudes and tailor reasonable messages to the “persuadable sceptics” without haring off after hard-liners.
So if we decide to break with tradition and pursue a strategy of achievable promises tailored to persuadable voters of reasonable opinion (which is not simply code for “metropolitan liberals who agree with us already”) what should be our lines of attack?
Oddly enough, the first part of the solution can be found in today’s newslinks too: several thousand illegal immigrants have been caught in a Government crackdown on bogus employers.
This highlights several useful things, not least the fact that clear-cut ‘wins’ in migration press coverage are rare and can only stem from limited, achievable policy objectives. Yet it also suggests the first strand of a sensible migration campaign: the perception of fair play. Much of the resentment engendered by immigration comes from a feeling that (some) migrants are gaming the system and screwing British subjects.
Enforcing the minimum wage and cracking down on employers who break the rules not only helps to shift perceptions about the Government’s ability to “do something” about migration, but it puts the party on the right side of a contest between low-income workers and unscrupulous employers.
Nor do we need to confine this tactic of standing up for the little guy to the “natives” – a lot of migrants working illegally are trapped in horrible and deeply exploitative conditions, the tackling of which dovetails nicely with Theresa May’s crusade against modern slavery. This is a much better political narrative than one that smacks of picking on migrants, particularly given our party’s struggle with the BME vote.
On the cultural side, simple measures like expressing and enforcing a clear expectation that migrants learn English and respect British values can have transformative effects on attitude polling. No less than 77 per cent of respondents (p. 9) told pollsters working on behalf of British Future that immigrants who “work hard and pay taxes, learn the language [and] be part of the community” would find themselves welcome in Britain.
The same research showed overwhelming public support for restricted access to welfare for new migrants, and there’s no reason to think that a tough-minded approach towards welfare is at all incompatible with the strategy outlined above. Deliverable promises on welfare restrictions provide the “firm” to our policy to match the “fair” discussed above.
We should not fall into the trap of perceiving a false choice between a “nice” migration policy – non-judgemental, non-integrationary, excessively permissive and laxly enforced – and a “proper” immigration policy (tough on migrants, tough on the causes of migrants).
What we need is a policy that exhibits compassion and understanding for those caught up in or affected by the migration system, combined with a firm but practical programme of action to crack down on exploitative behaviour. Where we genuinely can’t do anything under present circumstances – for example, EU migration – we should tell the public this, then point out that we’re going to give them a referendum on that very topic and Labour aren’t.
What the Conservatives need in the next five months is a strategy which is firm, fair, and honest. Not only would this prevent us writing cheques that populists like Farage will happily cash in the next Parliament, but it will equip us to take the fight to UKIP and Labour on some of their pet issues.