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Is it politicians or the press creating anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain?

It is the main parties that are responsible for the public’s increasingly hardening attitude, not the Daily Mail and UKIP.

             Flickr/Icars. Some rights reserved.

Two decades ago, in the midst of a serious recession with over 10% unemployment, the issue of immigration motivated very few people. The BNP could barely raise a few thousand votes in the 1992 General Election in spite of unemployment-related civil disorder in several major cities. But the inept and, some say, deceitful handling of immigration by the political class in the subsequent 20 years, even in times of boom, has been a particular contributor to the loss of trust and respect in elected politicians of the 'main' parties. To this has to be added the cack-handed recent jumping on the bandwagon by all the main parties pretending to reflect the voters’ concerns, thereby projecting the logic that immigration is a ‘problem’ which needs resolving. By failing to be honest about what they can and cannot do within, for example, EU rules but creating a hostile mood based upon cynicism and dishonesty, the political class is probably the major contributor to the big change in attitude towards immigration, from which others are now benefitting.

Although angry about the lack of debate on immigration and irritated by the fact that anyone who wanted to discuss it had to therefore be "racist", I was one of the many UKIP members of the time (I was an NEC member from 1998 to 2005) who had much less concern about immigration than I did about the loss of sovereignty caused by EU membership. If you look at UKIP leaflets of the time, immigration was there but not a major element. The essence of the policy has remained constant – total control by the UK of its borders. My feeling was that the UK should control all of its immigration policy and borders, but that we might in any event want much of the freedom of movement even if we had that control. We might indeed even want more freedom in regard to inward migration of non-EU nationals.

Diane Abbott may have been portrayed as inept as all other main party politicians on this subject when she recently talked about making the positive case for immigration, but a proper pro and anti debate was something we always wanted when I was involved with UKIP and a member of the NEC. If Diane wanted to put forward the pro case, then fine, and let's have the anti-side as well in debate; it would allow the unemotional and thoughtful aspects to be put without the fear of the racist label always being applied or BNP-type stooge characters or state plants/useful fools used to shout the anti case in rabid headlines.

But this of course appears to have been specifically what the political class have not wanted. Their approach has been - it's got to happen, voters won't understand if we tell them the truth, they will not like it (in fact they will probably hate it, and us as a result) so just dissemble, make nice noises using words like 'concern' and get tame journalists to write articles that are inaccurate but imply that "something will be done", try never to actually lie yourself and hope that the problem will go away. When it's too late, and your claims about numbers are totally wrong and you are found out, just shrug your shoulders and suggest it's time to "move on" and some genuine concerns need "addressing".

At the heart of the striking change in UK attitudes towards immigration  lies two decades of high immigration accompanied by these verbal sticking plasters designed to clamp down on debate, together with what appears to have been the spinning of figures and statistics. If all else fails, they have played the ‘cry racist’ card and smeared critics with it. 

Governments of all persuasions fear that they do not know how to present the truth, particularly in relation to the large numbers who can quite legally come to the UK from the EU, and about which the UK can do nothing. When did anyone ever say on Newsnight or in any keynote speech: “well that’s what it says in the treaties. Sorry, we are lumbered with it whether you like it or not and we cannot discriminate as it’s illegal.” The plain truth would turn more people against the EU, which of course is one key reason why politicians have to pretend and dissemble and imply they are still in control. But this has merely stored up more problems for the future. In the context of an EU referendum the issue would probably become explosive; not specifically because of animus against immigrants, but mostly because of the full-on exposure during the campaign of the lack of UK/Westminster control which even now is not fully understood by the voters. The issue is an Achilles heel for the main parties because their only hope is to try and avoid debate, which will not be possible in a referendum. So now they create a mood barrage of speeches and releases to imply that they recognise immigration is a ‘problem’ which needs resolving, because they can see their voters deserting them.

The issue of EU immigration is of course only part of the story, with two thirds of inward migration coming from outside the EU – but the recent tortuous spinning of the statistics in late August 2013 to claim “successes” (meaning a reduction in numbers) at a time when net inward migration has increased simply adds to the loss of trust. Similarly, the endless media reports about the deportation of violent criminals and the difficulties encountered has not been met with honesty by government but a resort to clever wordings, smothered by legalese. These failures are then countered for what appears like PR purposes by the use of heavy handed lumpen nastiness by the authorities in regard to the instances where they can act, often against the weak or sick, for example like the case of Nigerian Roseline Akhalu. In fact it is worth reading the angry comment by ‘Beestonite’ about this story in her local newspaper as it sums up the attitude of anger towards the authorities when it comes to the issues surrounding immigration.

The past strategies have simply driven the issue into a corner from which it is now emerging, angry and armed at the very least with evidence that the political class does not know what it is doing in this most sensitive area, or is simply lying on an epic scale. 

The clearly tongue-in-cheek "predictions" of the last government about the likely impact of Polish immigration in 2004 (the almost comic forecast of "13,000" likely immigrants which turned into a figure vastly more), has been now repeated in similar style by the current government in relation to Romanians and Bulgarians (a government 'study' savaged by MPs on their own side as 'a whitewash'). How can anyone, for or against immigration (or neutral like myself) trust anything said by people who can get it all so wrong, or buy into any of their policies on the matter? 

Bland ‘feelgood’ statements about jobs for locals whether by Labour's immigration spokesman or government ministers have a baleful effect, as did the recent immigration billboard vans, rightly panned by UKIP as “nasty and Big Brother”. They make clear that the main parties’ attitude is now based upon mood, electioneering at a time when they are losing votes, and cynical pandering, while the long standing UKIP approach remains linked to the right to control the borders  - whatever else they do, and however cynical and ineffectual, these campaigns by the political class clearly flag up to the voter that the government is suggesting a wrong needs righting. It now appears to the growing number of cynics that the whole political class shares what has been presented as Diane Abbott's view (that immigration is a good thing), but is dishonestly trying to affect that it does not.

When I was a member of the London Assembly, a body elected to hold the Mayor to account, I asked the Olympic Delivery Authority how on earth they could support claims by government about the Olympics delivering local jobs and contracts to businesses in ‘the Olympic boroughs’. As was eventually conceded to me, EU rules do not allow this, so any such promise is hollow. But still it went on, through the main parties cheerleading the Games with false PR. 

As with Diane Abbott, so with recent comments by Chris Bryant, Labour's immigration spokesman. He suggested that local workers should be given a “fair crack of the whip” but he did not say how. Is he suggesting a quota system in private business for employing "locals", and how is he defining these locals and what will be the legal basis of discriminating against other EU nationals? Is it formal or informal nod and wink discrimination he is advocating? Should a similar type of thing be adopted for public sector employees? Maybe is he saying all should be ‘British-born’? Or is it all just words, again creating an unpleasant mood to imply a “let’s get tough in the immigrants” approach which he will never be able to apply? Erroneously attacking employers in a manner which is then chaotically withdrawn, accompanied by ill-tempered squirm-inducing media appearances, is clearly not sustainable.

Set these random, unprofessional and mildly unpleasant campaigning approaches of the main parties, strewn with embarrassing errors, against just the two-minute video about immigration on the UKIP website and the latter looks the most calm and credible. Former Minister for Europe, Chris Bryant, surely understands why what he appears to be implying cannot be done. He was part of a government, like the current one, which encourages and accepts the EU and the Single Market and all that goes with it without much question - "local worker" means one from Poland or Portugal, not just one born 5 minutes walk from the local Tesco.

Government and opposition would probably now be better served by turning their stance on its head and adopting the Diane Abbott idea of talking it up, rather than "whoops, we didn't realise another million would come but it's no problem, shut up you racists". This really is not working any more. Why not be frank about what the Single Market means, the involvement of the EU and what can and cannot be done in regard to all groups of inward migrants? We know, of course, why. It is that this would be unacceptable to the majority of people in their own parties, never mind the voters. So we are left with dissembling and dishonesty, with token nastiness. All of which are much worse for democracy.

 

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About the author

Damian Hockney is a magazine publisher who became involved in politics through his opposition to the plan to give Europol officers immunity for life from prosecution. A former vice-chair of UKIP, he was elected to the London Assembly in 2004 and was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority from 2004 to 2008.

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