Over the last five days the leaders of three political parties have made speeches about immigration. Cameron’s latest speech suggests that there is now a race to the bottom on immigration.
Over the last five days the leaders of three political parties have made speeches about immigration.
Nick Clegg’s was the first, last Friday. He proposed a financial bond for entrants to the UK from high risk countries. Looking back to his 2010 Manifesto, where the Lib Dems were attacked for their proposed regularization of undocumented migrants, Clegg also announced a review of his party’s immigration policy.
Nigel Farage followed Clegg on Saturday, signifying that UKIP intended to make immigration just as much of campaigning issue as membership of the EU. Then yesterday David Cameron weighed in, with his first speech solely on immigration since his election.
While Cameron’s speech did contain some workable proposals – for example, closing some of the benefit loopholes – much of the speech was premised on imaginary threats.
Take his proposals on housing, where he is saying that councils could introduce a local residency test where someone would have to live in an area for two to five years before they could go on a waiting list for social housing.
The problem is that existing regulations already exclude most migrants from social housing. The two groups who do qualify – EU migrants and refugees – the latter a numerically tiny number – are overwhelmingly young and single, and in this respect unlikely to qualify for social housing.
Cameron’s speech suggests that it is now a race to the bottom in terms of immigration. Perhaps more than any time in the last ten years, immigrants have emerged as a scapegoat, a view highlighted by the Bishop of Dudley’s recent intervention.
This poses a dilemma for Labour. It could carry on with its existing strategy which involves ignoring UKIP and trying to reframe the immigration debate in its own terms. This reframing or triangulating approach has been to try and recast immigration as an employment problem.
Labour has argued, most recently in Yvette Cooper’s speech, that the party needs to enforce the National Minimum Wage and oblige employers to train their workforce. In this way, the demand for migrant labour will be cut and UK-born unemployed will stay in jobs that have previously been the preserve of migrant workers.
This reframing is an attempt to acknowledge concerns about immigration and to appeal to existing supporters.
Yet reframing the immigration debate is hard to pull off, particularly when the tabloid media is not on your side. All opinion polling shows that cultural concerns are a major component of anti-immigration sentiments, particularly about Islam.
These are not being addressed by the current approach.
Perhaps there is an alternative approach, with a recent Policy Network paper showing the way.
Democratic Stress, the Populist Signal and Extremist Threat argues that “the ‘framing space’ of politics is competitive…. no matter how talented a communicator a mainstream party may have at their disposal, if they do not address anxieties head-on by talking about cultural as well as social and economic matters, they risk irrelevance.”
The paper argues for a new statecraft and for democratic renewal as the alternative approach. Anthony Painter, its author, argues that statecraft is:
“[where] local needs are met, new voters are mobilized into mainstream democracy, hate and extremism is challenged, support for community life is extended, and social capital is developed within communities is a crucial component of the ‘new statecraft’. This is not simply through political parties – which have to fundamentally change nonetheless – but through community organisations, campaigns and local authorities.”
Above all, the paper calls democratic renewal and for debate about migration, within political parties, community groups and associative circles. Now, above all, we need to talk about immigration, in all its complexities.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.