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The Bulgaria and Romania debate is mired in cynical fantasy

Politicans are stoking fears and tensions because they are powerless to do anything of substance. This is the worst of all worlds. It is cynical, irresponsible, inflammatory and exposes a major democratic deficit.

Damian Hockney
9 December 2013
Commons32.jpg

Image: UK Parliament

At the core of the debate in the UK over potential Bulgarian and Romanian immigration from January 1 2014 lies a trail of failure over a decade and a half by the political class leading to complete loss of reputation for management and honesty in this particular area. It is as serious as the Tory government’s loss of reputation for economic management in 1993 after its chaotic and amateurish handling of the ERM crisis. But this time it involves all of the three main parties. The fact that members of the last Labour government now talk about their own “spectacular mistakes” (Jack Straw, former Home Secretary) and fearing “explosions” (David Blunkett) makes it clear that this perception is not just held by hardened voters of political parties like UKIP which want far greater restrictions on immigration.

For what it is worth, as a former UKIP NEC member, former Vice Chair and former elected UKIP member of the London Assembly, I had until about 2004 felt that the immigration debate was not one that UKIP should focus on, and I regularly expressed that in any speeches I made. I was aware that many at the time felt as I did – that UKIP was a party for those who wanted the UK out of the EU, and that any immigration focus should be on national control over borders. In any later debate, had we been in a position to affect the national position (presumably through the election of MPs of a sufficient number), members like myself at that time would have put a more positive case for immigration (if not automatic access to benefits etc), while others would have put the alternative.

The difficulty for people like myself in all the most recent debates is that the ensuing decade has seen us herded towards the position now taken by UKIP because of the complete failure of management by the political class. Because they appear not to have a clue what they are doing in an area which has such an impact on voters, bland statements that unknown and potentially unlimited numbers must somehow be good for the country no longer carry any weight and even the most committed supporter to open borders would find that a difficult stance upon which to base policy.

As I have written before, statements from ‘main party’ politicians talking about the need to ‘get tough’ fuel the rise in opposition to immigration (and, ironically, in support for parties who are openly opposed) because they are not just being said by a minority party to a group of voters which already shares the view.

For all the latest hysterical, panicky window dressing, the present government is making similar mistakes, trying to dampen down concerns about January 2014 by using arguments which replicate those of the past, for example over Polish immigration. And they are in fact adding a third mistake, bringing panic to the table by trying to ‘get tough’ just weeks before the date with measures which cannot be fully implemented in time. It is an incredibly risky strategy for the British (or, more accurately, English) political class.

The two strands of argument followed by the political class have been: make wild (and in the event absurdly low) estimates about numbers and then try to bury the news when they are wrong and then say, with no evidence provided, “well it’s good for the economy anyway”; and the second strand is to loudly shout ‘racist’ at anyone who questions what is happening and to get tame hack journalists to write smear stories to “prove” the assertions, to close down debate - these tactics now do not work with the voters and to Labour’s credit it gave up on the latter part of the strategy some time ago. Interestingly, though, the Tories now seem to have decided on this disastrous tack: witness hapless Tory Minister Anna Soubry doing it with such disastrous effect for her party and reputation against UKIP leader Nigel Farage on Question Time recently.  And of course the government has also made the same mistake by trailing likely figures which are clearly plucked out of the air as hopeful numbers to shut voters up. These have not been made officially, as happened with the Polish figures, but the low figures which have been touted are government issue via third parties and tame commentators. Clever maybe, but not clever enough.

The provision of opinion as fact – “it’s good for you” and “there will only be a few thousand” – and the failure ever to apologise for information which misleads has simply meant that any words by any main party on the subject are now tainted. Is this a surprise, even if you support a fully open door policy?

Voter attitudes could not really be clearer, as the yougov poll of December 1 2013 demonstrates. With government suggesting some measures regarding some benefits – for example none to be paid in the first 12 weeks in the UK – the EU has indicated that some of this might be illegal: over half in the poll say ‘do it anyway whatever the EU says’. But of course it is not as simple as that. Most of the restrictions will not be in place in time anyway, which is very useful for the Government – it can affect in mood music and lots of media coverage that it is doing something now (‘getting tough’) with no intention of doing it – win win, they feel. The law-breaking aspects (the ones that the voters want) can be conveniently pushed aside in the future, kicking the issue down the road after a bit of good publicity today. The Government is hardly likely to break the law (it’s not just ‘EU law’, it’s UK law).

Against this background, of relatively mild measures unlikely to be in place in time anyway and a Government which will not do something if the EU forbids it, UKIP and those who call for greater restrictions are winning yet another battle, as can be seen in very recent yougov polls: this one  gives UKIP its highest figure from that organisation for the past six months and second highest ever. Yet further credibility seeps away from another ‘get tough’ policy, providing the impression that the entire political class admits it has to ‘get tough’ but seems to be standing impotently by and not doing so. All the government are left with is the ‘racist’ and ‘extremist’ shouts, waving their paws against those who point out their new and coming failures.

And worryingly for the government, the poll highlights a growing perception among voters that the EU is the main obstacle. One thing that the EU has never wanted to do is to find itself in the full glare of daylight and publicity appearing to tell a government “you must do something in the teeth of opposition from the majority of your population”. And to have a senior EU official appearing to smear the British people as “nasty” for having the temerity to oppose EU rules on this matter is merely to add insult to injury.

At the heart of this too is clearly a growing feeling among an ever larger percentage of the voters that they are being actively lied to by the political class on this issue, in order to avoid addressing the issues of overcrowding in cities and towns, and the provision of adequate schooling and services. And, indeed, in order to provide cheap labour for employers and to avoid having to address issues relating to EU membership and control over borders. It matters not whether you believe the lies are intended for the best or for the worst, this is what many are increasingly believing. These people are probably lost to the three main parties now in England and Wales.

Admission of mistakes is, of course, a necessary first step. But that is fine when you are in Opposition and trying to win support by saying “we wouldn’t do that again”. Voters appear to want something that they are simply not allowed to have and are not going to get, either through the present government or the Opposition.  The yougov poll hints once again that voters do not really understand why they cannot have it. They are casually suggesting the government breaks the law and do not understand that EU law is not some foreign set of rules that we can pick and choose from. And the political elite are not really about to tell the people the facts about this – it makes them appear redundant if they say “well what do you expect us to do? And so opposition to immigration of any form mounts yet further.

For eurosceptics like myself who have always in the past believed in open borders and bilateral agreements and a sensible debate about the pluses and minuses, this endless cycle lacking any virtue makes for thin times. It lays bare the threats to representative democracy and demonstrates the lack of will by the political class to actually do anything about these.

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