Thursday

1st Dec 2022

Analysis

Defeat is most likely result of UK immigration arms race

  • An anti-immigration arms race by the Labour and Conservative parties is playing into Ukip's hands (Photo: HighVis UKIP)

Most election campaigns in Britain used to boil down to which party convinces voters it can best handle the economy.

That is how Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives in the 1980s and then Tony Blair's Labour party in the 1990s carved out more than a decade of political dominance.

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Fast forward to 2014 and opinion polls indicate that voters have more trust in David Cameron and George Osborne to run UK Plc. than in their Labour or Liberal Democrat counterparts. They should be in pole position to win next May's general election.

Yet Nigel Farage's UK Independence party (Ukip), whose economic policy is scarcely taken seriously by Farage himself, let alone anybody else, appears certain to win its second House of Commons seat on Thursday (20 November).

It is widely expected that the Ukip candidate, Mark Reckless, will take the Rochester and Strood constituency on the south-east coast on a swing of up to 50 percent from the governing Conservatives.

Labour, too, will be routed into a distant third place in a seat that an opposition party would expect to win six months before a general election.

On this website last month, Open Europe's Nina Schick observed that poll after poll shows that immigration is now the number one issue for British voters.

Most Brits believe that the country has no control over its borders and that its national health service and welfare system is struggling to cope with the costs of EU migrants.

Fear about unlimited immigration is just as prevalent in Labour's strongholds in the cities and north of England as the coastal towns and the south-east region which invariably return Conservatives.

As a result, Ukip, which has put EU migration at the top of its list of reasons for demanding the UK's exit from the bloc, has been able to ride the crest of the wave, topping the poll at May's European elections and soaring to 20 percent in opinion polls.

If immigration has become arguably the single most important issue in British politics, then a reputation for tough rhetoric on migration appears to trump one for economic competence.

Labour and the Conservatives have become embroiled in an unseemly arms race to see who can talk toughest on the subject.

Earlier this week, Labour announced plans under which EU nationals in Britain would only be entitled to unemployment benefits after two years. For his part, Cameron has also spent months thinking of ways to restrict migration from eastern Europe and access to welfare benefits.

He would like to impose a cap on the total number of EU migrants and wants out-of-work EU nationals to prove they can find a job after six months on benefits or risk losing the security net.

Faced by this public sentiment, the reaction by the two major parties is understandable. But that doesn't mean that it is good politics.

For one thing, the rhetoric is not matched by reality.

Labour has estimated that the annual cost of welfare benefits to over 250,000 EU migrant households at £1.6 billion (€2.1 billion) per year, but only a fraction of these would be excluded under their proposal.

Meanwhile, a number of studies bear out that EU migrants make hefty contributions to the UK's coffers.

Research published earlier this month by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (Cream) at University College London found that EU migrants paid in €25 billion more than they received in benefits between 2001 and 2011.

In economic terms, both parties are barking up the wrong tree.

The immigration arms race is also highly questionable politics. There is no evidence that parties of the centre-right and left tacking to the right on immigration in a bid to collect votes from those tempted by more extremist parties has been successful.

On the contrary, since neither party is convincing voters that they will deliver their promises to restrict migration - Labour having been responsible for the wave of migration from the 10 countries who joined the EU in 2004, while the Conservatives have missed their pledge to cut migrant numbers - they are probably pushing more people towards Farage's party.

Ukip is poised to unveil several more Conservative MP defectors in the coming weeks and claims it is also negotiating with several members on the Labour benches.

The UK isn't the only country where public fears about welfare tourism are on the rise.

Angela Merkel's government in Berlin has also tabled a bill restricting access to welfare. But given the historical reliance of the UK economy on economic migrants, the whiff of hypocrisy is at its most pungent.

Neither the Conservative or Labour parties appear to have worked out that trying to out-Ukip Ukip on immigration won't convince voters. Instead, their misguided arms race is more likely to lead to mutually assured destruction - of their own election prospects next May.

The latest evidence of that destruction will be what Cameron and Miliband wake up to on Friday morning after the Reckless by-election.

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