Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the Tories (ok maybe not too much). First, they put up a rabidly rightwing candidate in the Eastleigh byelection who opposes the EU, abortion and gay marriage and says things like ‘ I don’t care about refugees.’ Then Lord Snooty goes down to Eastleigh himself to talk about tackling benefit scroungers and the migrant workers who take advantage of Britain’s ‘soft touch.’
As if that wasn’t enough, the Tory newspapers attempt to involve Nick Clegg in a sex scandal cover up in the hope of making inroads into the Lib Dem vote. Despite all that hard work, Lord Snooty and his pals wake up to find themselves in third place, humiliated by Nigel Farage’s bunch of petty bourgeois europhobes and xenophobes!
No, life just isn’t fair, and now politicians from the Big Three are seriously worried about Ukip and looking for explanations. John Denham, Ed Miliband’s parliamentary private secretary insists that the Ukip success in Eastleigh was due to the fact that immigration is a ‘serious issue for many voters’ and that ‘People were concerned about migration.’
Conservative interpretations vary, but the belief that ‘concerns’ about immigration are driving the Ukip vote was clearly a factor in Lord Snooty’s decision to inject another dose of anti-immigrant populism into the campaign. After all, a study of Ukip voters titled They Are Thinking What We Are Thinking concludes that
‘many complained that migrants from within the EU and outside had changed the character of their local area beyond recognition. Recession and austerity brought their complaints into sharper focus and heightened their resentment that they themselves worked long hours for stagnant incomes as the cost of living rose. Immigrants, meanwhile, seemed to them to be entitled to extra financial help, and priority access to public services and to be depressing wages, and importing an alien culture.’
There is no doubt that immigration was a factor in Ukip’s success. The manifesto published by the Ukip candidate Diane James ‘Diane’s Manifesto; Putting Common Sense Back in Government’ was filled with numerous populist policies that are contradictory and unrealisable in practice, such as its promises to cut ‘everyone’s’ taxes to a flat rate of 31 percent, while simultaneously restoring free dental care and eye care, reintroducing student grants, and creating one million new jobs through public and private investment.
The manifesto was also dotted with the kinds of promises you might expect from the party, whether it was ending ‘health tourism’ or stopping ‘open-door immigration.’ So what experience does Eastleigh have of any of these phenomena? Not too much, it seems. In 2009, according to Hampshire County Council statistics, 90.8 percent of the population of Eastleigh were classified as ‘White British’, followed by ‘white other’, and then ‘Asian’. The Council also notes that 92.6 percent of Eastleigh’s 123, 400 inhabitants were born in the UK.
This miniscule number of ‘immigrants’ does not suggest that its white majority population much to fear from the implantation of an ‘alien culture.’ Nor can the presence of such a small percentage of migrants have much impact on employment or wages.
Eastleigh is in fact quite a prosperous place. The working age population experienced a slight increase from 64.2 percent in recent years to 64.4 percent; unemployment stands at 1.8 percent, less that half the national average of 3.9 percent; and in 2006 a Channel 4 programme even voted it the ninth best place to live in the UK.
All this suggests that Eastleigh’s ‘concerns’ about immigration are manufactured concerns, picked up at secondhand from newspapers and politicians who continually talk about addressing such ‘concerns’ and insist on describing immigration as problematic.
Whatever their slightly different perspectives, both Labour and the Conservatives have contributed to a debased public debate, in which migrant workers are blamed for the economic crisis, and described as parasites and scroungers taking advantage of our generosity; in which ‘asylum’ as become a dirty word and refugees are a ‘burden’; in which foreigners are always doing better than us – and at our expense.
All this talk about immigration is a convenient distraction for a political class that has never had the courage to take on the institutions that actually caused the economic crisis, and which remain essentially committed to varying degrees of ‘austerity’ that have done far more damage to British society than immigrants ever could.
Politicians rarely listen to public ‘concerns’ about this impact, but they love to compete with each other in macho demonstrations of ‘toughness’ about immigration. Thus the Office for National Statistics statistics revealed that net migration in June last year had fallen from 247,000 to 163,000 compared with the previous year. Naturally the government boasted that what Immigration minister Mark Harper called its ‘tough reforms’ were having an impact on ‘the routes where abuse was rife.’
Harper was referring primarily to tightened restrictions on foreign students, whose numbers fell dramatically between 2011-2012. So yes, that is a kind of success, if you overlook the vital contribution that students make to universities and language schools, and the money they spend when they are inside the country.
But stupidity, opportunism and xenophobic condemnations of ‘bogus students’ do not take account of such realities, and this is the trajectory that this country has been trapped in for many years.
Over the next few years, it is likely to get worse, as Labour and the Conservatives appeal to the basest instincts of an electorate that is increasingly sick of both of parties. Farage may well be right that his party’s success is due to ‘revulsion’ at the three main parties, even if his own party is no less revolting.
But as political rhetoric on immigration increasingly resembles a race to the bottom, Ukip may well prosper, at least for a while, and its success is likely to bring the British political class even deeper into the populist cesspool.