Emergency brakes and benefit caps were put on offer by party leaders this week. Both are intended to get across the message that immigration can be got back under control. But aren’t there bigger truths that we should be trying to get across, like how the movement of people is all a part of the ‘new normal’ of everyday life in the twenty-first century?
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Just as Clacton recedes into memory so Rochester looms up as the next thing to get excited about. It brings with it the dreadful thought that the entire run-up to the 2015 general election will be made up of a series by-elections provoked by Tory defections to the UKIP insurgents, ensuring a steady draft of oxygen to keep the embers of anti-Europeanism glowing fresh and bright for months to come.
What will this mean for the public conversation on immigration policy? Funnily enough their historic victory in the Essex seaside town earlier in the month could open up some interesting tensions even within UKIP’s seemingly intransigent ranks. The victorious defector from the Conservatives, Douglas Carswell, seems to have been at pains to make the point that strident anti-immigration is not really his bag during his interview in the Guardian last week.
But this line is unlikely to hold together the momentum of the UKIP charge. People veering in the direction of that party do so because they like its message on getting tough with immigrants. That is the lesson the leaders of the mainstream parties believe they are learning about the moods of the electorate, and their efforts to halt the contagion are addressed almost exclusively to this issue.
The Conservative response moved on a pace during the past week with David Cameron’s dramatic announcement that he was seeking an ‘emergency brake’ on migration from the EU. At the Tory conference at the beginning of the month he had claimed that reform of free movement rules was needed because immigration had “increased faster than we in this country wanted… at a level that was too much for our communities, for our labour markets.”
The difficulty with all of this is that there is precious little evidence of real substance that is likely to convince other European leaders of the need for the type of radical reform of free movement law that Mr Cameron appears to want. The most authoritative study of the impact of free movement on the UK labour market, published by the independent Migration Advisory Committee in July, pointed to the need for stronger inspection powers for regulatory bodies like the Gangmaster Licencing Agency, but found no evidence for the claims of overstrain made by the prime minister.
The report supported the view that public services like health and education had been stretched in parts of the country which had experienced migrant influxes. But other experts have pointed out that these could be remedied by strengthening the resources available to local and regional government to anticipate and plan for this type of inward migration.
The Rochester and Strood by-election, triggered by another Tory defection to Ukip and set to take place on 20 November, has brought Labour’s leader out into the open to declare his policy on immigration.
Mr Miliband’s strategy is focusing on the changes that he thinks are possible regarding border controls, access to welfare benefits, control of private sector employment agencies, and longer transition periods to full free movement rights for citizens of countries acceding to the EU.
As a measure of practical politics, limiting benefits has the virtue of promising voters a tough approach aimed at winning reform from other heads of government in areas of policy, which might just about be achievable. It seems clear that whilst the other EU leaders might be willing to discuss limiting rights to social security benefits, with much longer periods of qualification before these became payable, they are most unlikely to budge an inch on anything as radical as the outright refusal to allow EU nationals to take jobs in other countries, which would be the effect of an ‘emergency brake’.
But two questions still hang over the Labour strategy. The party has to anticipate that it will draw the criticism about measures such as border controls that check when people leave the country as well as enter, or limit entitlement to welfare benefits for longer periods. These would do very little to reduce the numbers of people currently coming to exercise their free movement rights. The volume of migration is driven by the availability of employment opportunities in the UK, and not the prospect of receiving a social security payment. As long as the economy can continue its phenomenal success in creating large numbers of new jobs whilst the rest of Europe flatlines, then inward migration will remain an issue for those who worry about numbers.
The missing ingredient in all these attempts to box clever on immigration is that of preparedness to actually tell voters the truth about why the world is standing on the threshold of a new period of high migration. Immigration is regarded by many people as a sort of accident that the country stumbled into around about ten years ago when politicians took their eyes off the ball and allowed more people to enter as workers and students. Solving the problem for them requires little more than reversing these errors and returning to the controls of the 1990s and earlier.
This approach ignores the fact that a whole new type of economy has been put in place over this period, and that it is not only the UK but the entire industrialised world that is struggling with the problem of how to manage immigration in this epoch of globalisation.
A great deal of the anxieties which currently lead many people to take an anti-immigrant stance would be reduced if a concerted effort was made by the politicians of all parties, in alliance with grassroots civil society organisations working on issues of impact and cohesion, setting out to make the case that what we have now quite simply constitutes the ‘new normal’ of life in the twenty-first century.
The allure of the so-called insurgents lies in the view that ‘stop the world, I want to get off’ really is a practical policy option. It isn’t, and it is instructive that even UKIP’s recent high profile recruits are prepared, though very tentatively, to voice that fact.
This rejection of pessimism needs to be reinforced by people who are trying to make mainstream politics credible once again, capable of addressing the problems which people really face in their lives today, and not going off into the symbolism and myths encouraged by identity politics and anti-immigration stances.
The ‘emergency brake’ will not stop Mr Cameron hitting the brick wall that looms up so prominently for his political choice. For Labour, a conversation about the policy option details is all very well, but if it supports the delusion that immigration is undesirable and needs to be pushed down it will be as self-defeating as anything the party tried under the terms of the ‘five year plan’ initiated in 2005 when it was clear that immigration was becoming an unpopular issue.
Instead, telling the truth about the new normal of migration in our modern world really is the best chance we have got to stop the slide into evermore desperate and dangerous types of politics.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.