Back in the Blair years it was “Education. Education. Education.” Now, all we hear is “Immigration. Immigration. Immigration.” At least we do from the public; less so from the politicians. Polls suggest that voters believe that immigration is the biggest issue facing the UK. Activists from all political parties must grudgingly admit that it is brought up time and time again on the doorstep.
A poll published in the Daily Telegraph found that ‘immigration and asylum’ now trumps crime and health as the number one issue facing the UK today, with 56% of those asked choosing it as their number one concern. In the same survey, a monumental 72% of those questioned thought that the British government “almost never” or “occasionally” took the British people’s opinions into account while 67% thought that Britain is already over-crowded.
On the first point, at least, they are right. The two largest British political parties, Labour and the Conservatives, having made their statements on the subject, are now refusing to discuss the issue at all. UKIP is the only party willing to have an open and frank debate about immigration; whatever your views on Farage’s party, this cannot be denied. Yet for their troubles UKIP is constantly criticised as a racist party, despite arguing in favour of an Australian-esque points-based immigration system that would assess individuals on their own merits rather than whether or not they are European. As far as the public are concerned, UKIP win on immigration and neither the Conservatives nor Labour can tackle this.
A couple of weeks ago Cameron finally made his oft trailed speech on immigration. His spinners made it very clear that this was it, and there would be no more talking about immigration after the leader had spoken. Except that the great plans – to block EU migrant access to benefits – were squarely shot out of the sky by France, Germany and Poland before the autocue had stopped flickering. While we remain in the EU it is a pipedream to even think that the other 26 nations will accept such a fundamental change to the European Treaties.
Labour are unwilling to offer a referendum on Europe and therefore the free movement of people will continue, despite Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, doing her very best to sound “strong on the subject”. In a phrase reminiscent of Michael Howard’s era of Conservatism, she recently declared “It isn’t racist to be worried about immigration or to call for immigration reform.”
Ed Miliband wasted an entire seven minutes in Great Yarmouth, dragging the whole press core in his wake, pontificating over one of the missing pages in his conference speech; not the deficit, the economy. His great statement was just a restatement of current government policy to ensure that employers treat all workers, migrants included, equally and within the law. There have already been two convictions under this law in the last couple of years so one wonders why Miliband dragged everyone to the edges of Norfolk – a seat where UKIP is already winning at European and local council level, and where Labour is trailing dismally – just to reiterate what is current government policy. Perhaps seven minutes was too long; Lucy Powell certainly thought so.
Earlier this week a document was leaked instructing activists to “move the conversation along” when it turns to immigration. This morning, Labour’s Lucy Powell MP, Ed’s shiny new Deputy Head of the Election Campaign went on to BBC’s Daily Politics programme to obfuscate over the party’s immigration policy and tell the presenter Andrew Neil that he should not be asking her about the leaked Labour memo, the same memo that was described by unnamed Labour MPs as “disastrous, cack-handed and bollocks”. Unsurprisingly, he ruined her, after she harangued the poor chap and claimed her cock-up “irrelevant” to the BBC. Voters are right to not trust Labour on immigration; between 1997 and 2010 immigration rose by 45%.
According to the electorate, immigration will be the key issue over which the General Election is fought. It is surely madness or dereliction on the part of the legacy parties to leave the dance floor open for Farage and his variegated crew to get the phone-in vote. Whatever you think about immigration – and as a libertarian I quite support it, if we further limit the profligate welfare state – it is on the minds of the voters and our politicians are immensely foolish to think the issue, or indeed UKIP, will go away anytime soon.