Politicians will never please the public on immigration, so they should stop trying

On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it.

On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it

There is one hot political topic where the two most honest politicians also happen to be the politicians we despise the most. Indeed, we regularly say we value frankness from our elected representatives yet if this issue is anything to go by we actually respond to something quite different: an emotional pandering to our most illogical prejudices.

The topic in question is immigration, an issue we are supposedly “not allowed to talk about” but which almost every week results in some cheap and counterproductive initiative flowing from the mouth of a politician. Yesterday it was Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves talking about restricting benefits for migrants until they’ve worked. Last week it was David Cameron talking about the supposed “magnetic pull” of the British benefits system. Next month we’ll probably hear of a fresh “get tough” announcement depriving immigrants of some other “entitlement” they rarely use.

It should be obvious as to why politicians like to blow the infamous dog-whistle on immigration and drip-feed the press an endless stream of announcements on “restrictions” and “crack downs”. In almost every opinion poll immigration is near to the top in terms of issues the public say they are concerned about. And when they say “concerned” they invariably mean pulling up the drawbridge on fortress Britain. According to a poll from January of this year, three quarters of Britons wanted a reduction in the level of immigration, with 56 per cent calling for a big fall in the number of people allowed into the country.

Considering that a majority of recent immigrants are from other countries in the European Union, there are two things that any honest politician can take from this: either Britain must pull out of Europe right away or we must accept the free movement of people and get on with it. All talk by David Cameron of reforming the EU to allow Britain to opt out of free movement is hogwash – however much the Daily Mail thunders the rest of Europe won’t stand for it. We can therefore either cling to the sepia-tinged illusion that Britain can live (and live well) without immigration or we can accept immigration as a fact of life and grapple with the really important issues like integration.

There are only two politicians willing to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion. Nick Clegg, the consummate pro-European, has (in the past at least) been unafraid to point out that immigration is good for Britain. Meanwhile Nigel Farage, who wants to take Britain out of Europe entirely, says (again truthfully) that you cannot significantly reduce immigration unless Britain leaves the European Union. Both, in their different ways, are correct. And yet their reward for the honesty we say we so badly want is to be the most despised politicians in the country – albeit for quite different reasons.

Indeed, for all we claim to hate the political class for their dishonesty, immigration is the one issue where we are quite comfortable with being lied to. We know very well that migrants pay in to the exchequer more than they take out; and yet still we demand that politicians “crack down” on the mythical concept of “benefit tourism” (there was no evidence of widespread benefit tourism by EU nationals, according to a report last year by the European Commission). We know that Britons are more likely (two-and-a-half times more likely) to be claiming working age benefits than non-UK nationals, but still we buy into racist tabloid stereotypes about opportunistic foreigners ready to steal the shirt off our collective back. We cite free movement as our favourite thing about the EU, yet we grumble into our newspaper when a citizen of another country actually decides to exercise that right.

This probably explains why, while we say we want a large reduction in immigration, we oppose the only sure method of actually bringing it about – leaving the EU.

It’s a cliché to say that we get the politicians we deserve, but immigration is the one issue where we really do. We want the European Union and the fiscal benefits of immigration but without any of the perceived drawbacks. We want the minimum wage cleaners, the nannies and the glass collectors but without the sound of the foreign voices on the daily commute. We say we don’t want migrants coming here to “steal our jobs” but we do nothing about it because, deep down, we know they are coming to Britain and paying for our pensions.

The next time you hear David Cameron or Ed Miliband making unkeepable promises about immigration, or pledging to “listen to genuine concerns” (whatever that entails) bear in mind that they are only doing what most people seemingly want them to do: using macho rhetoric that signifies nothing. On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it. We want immigration but without the immigrants. Try and triangulate your way out of that one.

This piece was first published at the New Statesman

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11 Responses to “Politicians will never please the public on immigration, so they should stop trying”

  1. John

    At the risk of being trite, see below

  2. itdoesntaddup

    It really helps if you look at the numbers. Even if you accept that we cannot control EU migration, achieving a zero balance in non-EU migration would have reduced net immigration to 66,000 in 2013. Moreover, as Prof Bob Rowthorn has expertly shown, with current immigration the economic benefit is at best marginal – and that is before you place any value on the consequences of increasing overcrowding. If you look at the figures all the way back to 1975, you will find that net migration was very close to zero until the late 1990s despite being a member of the EEC. The two exceptions were humanitarian acceptance of refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda, and citizens of Hong Kong prior to reunification with China. It has been done for protracted periods. It can be done again if there is political will. Politicians who ignore the issue are ignoring the top concern of voters today. Do you think you could get away with ignoring the economy, as the second most important?

  3. MK

    I am shocked to read this article. It’s basic argument is that British politicians should not listen to the overwhelming desire, frequently expressed, of the British public on the subject of immigration. There is already a crisis of democracy in the UK and Mr Bloodworth’s suggestion would make it even worse. Such contempt for democracy is a rejection of everything leftism (should) stand for.

    The author calls it a “sepia toned illusion” that “Britain can live without immigration”. Ofcourse Britain can. Britain created a world empire and lead the Industrial revolution while there was very little immigration to the UK – while at the same time sending millions of its people to colonies around the world.

    The author states immigration is a “fact of life”. It may be, but mass immigration is not and never has been. If total migration to the UK was a few thousand every year from Germany or France, it simply would not be a political issue. The immigration, never democratically backed by the British people, of many millions of people to the UK over a relatively short time span is far from a fact of life and the author probably knows it.

    The article’s justification for this unwanted mass immigration is that migrants contribute more to the countries finances than they take. But these migrants, now mostly young, too will grow old and sick and take more money from the government then they take in. What is the solution when that happens? Even more migrants? It is obvious that, realistically, the demographic and financial problems of Britain cannot be answered by ever more immigration.

    The truth is that, outside of the tabloids, the reason why most British people want immigration reduced (many significantly) is not economics but the impact of multiculturalism. I live in Bradford, and no honest person can fail to notice that parts of the city look closer to Islamabad than England. I will no doubt be called a racist for making this factual observation, but people all across England think this aswell, publicly or privately.

  4. Dave Roberts

    So James, what’s your answer, or haven’t you got one?

  5. Guest

    Your desire for mobocracy is anti-democratic.

    And your rich would live just fine. The economy you’d smash out of hate and spite would ensure that many poorer people would not, but that’s not you, so why should you care? Your revisionism about prior immigration is also typical.

    You’d be up in arms if you saw one black, so stop pretending, as you ignore the fact that people tend to go back home when they get older. Then you launch into a vicious attack on many British people, as you blame the Other for your far right’s hate attacks.

    You will try and brush off your racism, and the hate which you are causing. And of course you have other extremists with you. No surprise there at all.

  6. Guest

    Ah, so ending all paying students visa’s, expelling workers, etc.

    You also utterly ignore, of course, free trade’s benefits, and you blame immigrants for 34 years of insufficient house building, and are revising immigration figures.

    We’re not in the 1970’s. Isolating the UK and ending trade would smash the economy. The political will to hate Britain so much is, thankfully, lacking from our politicians. You don’t ignore the economy, you hate it with a bitter passion, so stop pretending.

  7. PoundInYourPocket

    Excellent article. This should be the end of the pointless and increasingly hysterical so called “debate”. Time to stop whining and whinging about immigrants and to start building houses so they have somewhere decent to live as we sit back and enjoy the benefits they bring to the economy and the culture. Immigration debate over. Trolls – you lost , if you don’t like it go live in the local museum.

  8. itdoesntaddup

    Free trade is entirely separate from immigration. Students who pay fees may come, but should return at the end of their courses. Zero net migration is not zero migration. I examine migration statistics (such as they are, particularly since we abandoned proper border controls): you choose to ignore them. House building has acutally run ahead of population increase over the past 34 years, and even just about managed to keep pace with the immigration dominated increases of the past 15 years. Evidently you want to isolate the UK’s economy.

    Are you a comedian?

  9. Guest

    No, I am not after your job.

    You are trying to separate the inseparable, as ever. You are trying to tell students “come”, whole at the same time scaring them off.

    I’m sure you’d eject as many British people as your rich who wanted to come here, right.

    And you lie viciously about house building (which has been massively under need for 34 years, period), fighting for higher rents for your slums, what a surprise, as you accuse me of your anti-British policies.

  10. Leon Wolfeson

    Just building houses ain’t enough, in the short term. We’re facing a crisis, and that means we need to consider things like temporary rent caps to stop mass evictions and homelessness, as well as massively overcrowded accommodation. To ease the pressure on the poor’s finances, etc.

  11. rat man

    You can’t build somewhere decent for them to live and keep the green belt policy, you can just build crappy crammed homes (predomanantly flats).

    No thanks.

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