by John Stephenson
The divisions within the coalition appear to have widened of recent, as Vince Cable broke rank yet again to denounce the Tory approach to immigration. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr last week, the business secretary dismissed the proposed 75,000 cap on EU migrants as “illegal”, making reference to Enoch Powell in his assessment of Cameron’s populist style of politics.
Such a move speaks volumes for the quandary and confusion the Conservatives are facing in the run up to 2015 and Labour can now seek to cash in on any discord among the Tory frontbench.
Labour is right to steer clear of the battleground that has seen UKIP dominate the thinking of Tory strategists. Recent victories for the far-right party have arguably led to the prime minister’s tough stance on immigration and it bears a striking similarity to the concern surrounding James Goldsmith’s Referendum party, which went on to have little, in any, impact on the 1997 general election.
Though the Tories are keen to stress the errors of their predecessors for the “mess” they’ve found themselves in, this is not to say that Labour have not acknowledged the error or their ways.
In a speech to the IPPR at the Local Government Association, Chris Bryant admitted that the measures taken by the party when in government had at times been mistaken. A lack of transitional controls on workers from the eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 saw a disproportionately high volume of workers stream into the UK, while countries like Germany and France (which retained controls until the last possible moment in 2007) were spared such an influx.
Yes, the arrival of around 500,000 migrants between 2002 and 2010 created problems, but if the Conservatives are so willing to play the blame-game then it seems only fair that Labour return the favour. At the start of the Blair years, the government faced a mountain of around 71,000 asylum applications each years; dealt with by just 50 employees. The very position of Immigration Minister was created by the party to deal with the challenge.
By opting for a serious discussion on migration, Labour can avoid the calamities of old and focus on open and frank party politics within a debate that usually blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Remember Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale pensioner labelled a “bigoted woman” by Gordon Brown during the 2010 election campaign? That was a political disaster for Labour prompted by a lady intent on engaging the PM in conversation over immigration.
Brown was quick to move the discussion on, only commenting by saying that the tide goes both ways, as over a million Britons have flocked to the continent. Whether or not she was “bigoted” is irrelevant, but what is certainly possible is that she was caught up in the media storm that usually surrounds itself around immigration.
Immigrants have for too long been scapegoats for parties in need of resurgence in the polls and Cable was right to call out Cameron on his empty political gesture of the 75,000 cap. Any potential referendum on the EU is far from certain and the PM will have known that such a move is impossible under British membership.
On the other hand, a rational discussion on the problems of immigration will only pay dividends for the country in light of the economic recovery of recent and freeing ourselves from the fear of being labelled “racist” is just a start.
At present, a cost-benefit approach to the issue shows that immigration has a positive economic impact and a UCL study found that, between 1995 and 2011, benefits outweighed the costs by around £9bn. And just today, the Centre for Economic and Business Research has predicted that the UK will become Europe’s biggest economy, overtaking Germany by 2030, partially as a result of immigration.
Though in certain areas immigration has seemed to be synonymous with a decline in living standards, much of this comes as a result of a housing shortage not helped by Tory policy which allows landlords in the social sector to charge up to 80% of the going market-rate.
A sensible discussion on immigration will allow us to move on to the real root causes of the challenges we face in this country, such as housing.
Labour plans to build 200,000 homes a year have been labelled as “statist” by Conservative commentators, yet the Labour policy review pledges to simply aid tenants within the private sector while regulating the letting of non-decent housing stock which, according to the English Housing Survey, currently comprises 35% of the market.
Talking rationally about immigration will strip away attempts to scapegoat immigrants which divert the debate and expose the real failings of this government.
John Stephenson is a final year student at Lancaster University