Could the Conservatives detoxify immigration politics?

Ayesha Saran reflects on her experience at the recent party conferences
Ayesha Saran
2 November 2009

"They lie, they cheat and they'll say anything to stay..." The voiceover on Sky TV announces a new documentary series, not about Westminster MPs but featuring an equally maligned group - immigrants. UK Border Force charts the lives of "diligent enforcement officers...cracking down on illegal immigrants". The cameras accompany UK Border Agency officials on deportation flights and searches for alternately tearful or unrepentant stowaways.

Elsewhere in the media, recent headlines have been dominated by the irregular immigration status of Attorney General Baroness Scotland's housekeeper, cruelly dubbed an "illegal skivvy" by the News of the World.  This coincided with rolling television coverage of the French police bulldozing the ominous sounding ‘Jungle' camp in Calais, prompting complaints that this would cause an upsurge in asylum applications in the UK. The disinclination of most politicians to venture into the minefield of immigration politics is therefore understandable. The debate is toxic.

Although stirring up this emotive issue during an electoral campaign will only benefit xenophobes, there may be unexpected opportunities to move beyond the hype and hysteria in the period after the general election likely to be held next spring. Informing the debate is a tortuous task given the well-documented deficiencies of immigration statistics. For this reason, the Government has struggled to counter claims about the perceived laxity of UK border controls, which has enabled hyperbole to dominate.The result is that public concern is rife. Transatlantic Trends, an internationally comparative poll, shows that immigration is more divisive an issue in the UK than in the US and many European countries. It is also more politically salient.

Yet there is consensus across the political spectrum, with the exception of marginal parties such as UKIP and the BNP, that immigration has made a positive contribution to the UK's economy and society and that a return to the zero immigration policies of previous generations would be damaging. I attended the Barrow Cadbury Trust supported fringe events on migration at the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat party conferences this autumn, and the difference between the policies and politics of Immigration Minister Phil Woolas and his opposition counterparts was scarcely discernible.

The idea that migrants take jobs from the ‘British' was roundly dismissed. Similarly there was agreement that the long-term goal of upskilling the local workforce would not obviate the need for immigration without a radical and unwanted transformation of the UK's labour market.Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green even took the opportunity to confirm that a Conservative Government would keep the newly introduced points based system for economic migrants. The main innovation would be an explicit limit to the numbers granted entry annually. However this policy is implemented, it is likely that the most positive impact will be in reassuring the public that immigration is under control. Such moderation is not always evident in the more public utterances of the same politicians. Tough talk about crackdowns, raids and deportations has dominated the policy announcements of a succession of Labour ministers. And although policy detail is scant, the Conservative approach to immigration also emphasises security measures to combat "terrorists, traffickers and illegal immigrants."

While the disjuncture between an avowed commitment to a calm, reasoned migration debate and alarmist public statements such as these continues, it seems productive to explore the opportunities this apparent political convergence might present. The pollsters and pundits are widely predicting a Labour defeat in the forthcoming general election. Remarkably, should the Conservatives form the next Government they might be ideally placed to drag the country out of the morass of immigration politics.

Such an assertion would have been unthinkable five years ago. The concept of political dog-whistling - whereby politicians use seemingly innocuous language to send out coded messages to sub-groups of the electorate - is often referred to in relation to the disastrous election-losing immigration politics of former leader Michael Howard in 2005.  Some commentators viewed his calls for strict immigration controls including quotas for asylum seekers as playing to a prejudiced gallery. The Conservatives seem to have learned their lesson from Howard's apparent misjudgement of the public mood. In the aftermath of his comments, in line with the party's famed decontamination strategy, circumspection prevailed. Under David Cameron's leadership, the party initially limited its comments on immigration to criticising what it perceives as Labour's ‘soft touch'.

Since then the political landscape has shifted considerably, and the Conservatives have become emboldened to make clearer statements in relation to their position on immigration, focusing almost exclusively on its economic benefits to the country. One key to normalising the migration debate now will be to fully explore and manage what the Government calls the ‘transitional impacts' of immigration in some localities. This would certainly chime with the current Tory focus on localism.

Although the Government has made laudable attempts to introduce evidence-based immigration policy during its current term, it has yet to dispel completely the popular perception that it has lost control of the numbers and the borders. This is perhaps why a recent Ipsos MORI poll shows the electorate continues to consider that the Conservatives would be better at tackling asylum and immigration - they lead over Labour by 14 points on this issue, a markedly higher margin than in any other policy area.

A future Conservative Government with some political capital before its proposed budget cuts kick in, combined with high levels of trust on immigration, will be well-placed to reframe a debate which all too often engenders mistrust and xenophobia. Perhaps it might follow the example of Boris Johnson, currently the highest Conservative elected official in the UK. Mayor Johnson's recent incarnation as an enthusiastic supporter of granting legal status to swathes of London's irregular migrant workers may have caused consternation at party headquarters. But it is exactly the type of counter-intuitive move that is required to shift the political terrain.

So could the Conservatives detoxify the migration debate if they win the general election? Given the welcome and unexpected degree of political convergence on the benefits of migration evident at the party conferences, this seems likely. But a lot will depend on whether an appropriate balance can be struck between addressing concerns about control and developing a cogent migration narrative. The ultimate goal should be a rational debate about the UK's long history of immigration.


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