The Tory programme on immigration is set to get the worst of all worlds, with disastrous consequences for Britain over the EU. The Tories now want to restrict benefits to immigrants and to make citizens from future EU member countries wait longer before they are allowed to work in Britain. Now Cameron is going further still with rhetoric about ‘fixing’ immigration to Britain from the EU, and has even floated the idea of an ’emergency brake’ on immigration beyond a certain level from even existing EU members. But an ’emergency brake’ is doomed to fail both ways round. It’s unlikely to placate UKIP supporters since UKIP will always go further in extreme promises about keeping out foreigners. It doesn’t even get to the heart of the problem since immigration is clearly a scapegoat for wider economic disgruntlements. That explains why London, the city most changed by immigration, is generally relaxed about it, whilst several of the areas most determined to keep out immigrants have actually seen very few. An emergency brake will not calm anxieties in the latter areas even if Cameron could deliver it, which he almost certainly won’t be allowed to by the rest of the EU as Merkel has not made adamantly clear.
Labour’s attitude is more nuanced. It has promised to abolish the Tories’ net migration target which has so angered business and the universities. Labour has also promised tougher regulation of the labour market in order to raise and enforce the minimum wage and thus prevent foreign workers from illegally undercutting British workers. In addition, recruitment agencies would no longer be allowed to advertise only for foreign workers. Labour also proposes to reassert the contributory principle in welfare and to require migrants to learn English. Sadly however this sensible programme has failed to break through so many of the myths that abound about immigration – e.g. that the country is being ‘swamped’ by immigrants when they actually number 13% of the population though the public believes they account for 31% – nor does it offer the change in direction from austerity to economic expansion which would alleviate so much of the prejudice.
Labour will be no more likely to outmanoeuvre Farageist populism than the Tories unless it can set a commanding agenda that restores hope to a deeply insecure and perplexed nation. Posturing in the shadow of UKIP only shifts the immigration debate ever further to the right and legitimising UKIP as the voice of dismal, small-minded English reaction.