Immigration is unpopular – on a large scale, at any rate. It is near the top of issues that people believe affect the country, but much further away when it comes to those that they believe affects them and their families. Furthermore, they are unconvinced that cutting it substantially or ending it completely is practicable. Finally, they suspect that politicians either can’t or won’t do anything about controlling it in any event. This is the sum of the argument of Peter Kellner of YouGov about what he describes as “the perilous politics of immigration”. He argues that “if parties stress immigration for effect and not because they really care, then an anti-immigration stance can be counter-productive, for it is apt to be regarded as self-serving and uncaring”.
His view provides a useful backdrop against which to set the immigration proposals set out in the ConservativeHome Manifesto, which were trailed on this site yesterday evening and provided the Times (£) splash this morning. I also floated them on the site earlier in the month: “A cap would be set on the number of people who enter each year. Full access to public services, benefits and tax credits would have to be earned – with it dependent on reaching a threshold level of tax contributions. New immigrants would be required to purchase their own health and welfare cover through a system of social insurance, to which employers would also contribute. This squeeze would allow a less restrictive policy on visas for tourists and foreign students – greater numbers of which would be a boost to our economy and British “soft power”.”
Kellner is certainly right on his last point (although this criticism does not apply, as far as Party activists at least are concerned, to Theresa May, who in recent months has either topped our poll of future leaders or come in second). And he leads me to my main one – which is that, whatever one believes the Conservatives’ immigration policy should be or what their next manifesto should contain, an immigration policy alone does not win elections. It is necessary but not sufficient. I will risk a parallel with diet. Immigration is the red meat of election campaigns. Most people eat it. But almost no-one eats meat only. The traditional meat, potatoes and two veg of elections campaigns were the economy, crime, and schools and hospitals – with a bit of tax thrown in. There is also the rather important question of whether or not voters trust the chef.
Immigration has become more salient since New Labour’s throwing-open of our borders under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. CCHQ will also try to raise the profile of welfare during the months leading up to next May’s election. The election may be as much about the chef (and his rival for the post, schooled on Hollande-type French cuisine) as about the menu. We hope our immigration policy – which won the support of 70 per cent of those polled about our manifesto by YouGov – is taken up by those writing the Conservative one. But the campaign cannot be won on immigration policy or the EU referendum alone. It needs to click with the hopes and fears of those struggling on lower incomes with high fuel costs and energy bills – policies for Bolton West, as we like to say on ConservativeHome.
It also needs to look to the future: to rise to the challenge of restoring mass middle class prosperity and security. It must set out a programme to put ownership first, cut jobs taxes, scrap HS2, reform pensions tax relief, create a Sovereign Wealth Fund, give devo-max to England. It needs to have policies for homes, jobs and savings.