It is the strangest irony that, entirely for the sake of courting public support, politicians often turn their attentions entirely to their fellow politicians, rather than to the electorate they wish to impress. With no issue is this more apparent than immigration. MPs’ desires to besmirch each other often lead to esoteric arguments that are worryingly disconnected from Britain’s mood, and seem to exploit public feeling more often than seriously addressing it.
This August, for example, when the Office of National Statistics announced that net immigration had increased by 21% to 239,000, both main parties leapt to arms. Labour depicted this as the Conservatives faltering on their pledge to cut immigration to “tens of thousands”, whilst Tories presented it as evidence of their governmental predecessors’ “addiction” to immigration. Both parties clearly agree that the issue should be dealt with by arguing over statistics and trying to appeal by appearing ‘tougher’ than the alternative party.
For the public, however, immigration is not string of statistical disputes and party-political arguments; it is a hugely emotive issue. There is a strong, largely hostile, feeling: a 2010 poll found 75% of Britons wanting “far stricter limits” on immigration. With such a mood, the temptingly easy way for politicians to win support is to posture “toughness” (as many did in response to the new statistics). But this is the lazy, myopic approach to democracy. Firstly, this exploits an unhealthy anger amongst Britons. Secondly, and most importantly, this “toughness” misrepresents Westminster’s powers to control the issue.
Politicians should not promise the impossible. In an era of globalisation, affordable travel, international communication and, crucially, the EU freedom of movement obligation, Westminster faces uncontrollable factors which make immigration inevitable. The government are powerless to curb EU immigration: migration from Eastern Europe increased eightfold last year, yet none of the proposed restrictions apply to this group. Governments are restricted in what they can do, and consequently, the biggest action taken on immigration in any one week will be a measure such as the reduction in the number of jobs available to non-EU workers that took place in September. But in no way is Westminster able to turn the tide on the global social phenomenon of migration. Whilst purporting to be able to be ‘tough’ on the phenomenon, politicians are throwing legislative teardrops into an ocean of unstoppable socioeconomic factors.
Portraying one party as ‘tougher’ than another is unrealistic – no party can curb immigration as drastically as many Britons would currently want. Therefore there is only one honest, realistic response to the public hostility: politicians need to turn their attention towards the anger of their constituents, instead of the misunderstood issue that this anger is aimed at. Immigration is disliked because of simple beliefs. A February poll found two thirds of us proclaiming immigration to be ‘bad’ for Britain (which shows a shocking lack of historical understanding). Those who believe this most likely believe that immigration is going to have negative effects on their lives in the future. To address Britain’s anger, there needs to be a connection with the public mood, and an honest exchange of ideas, instead of an exploitation of public anger.
Firstly, guarantees need to be made to the public: that illegal immigration is not tolerated and is dealt with effectively; and that public services – especially housing and healthcare – are still going to be available for Britons even whilst there is immigration in the future. Secondly, for the sake of all Brits who fear or dislike immigration, our leaders’ objective should be to educate; to spread an understanding and tolerance of the 21st Century globalised economy, in which migration is an inevitable phenomenon.
The benefits of a multi-cultural, diverse and ever-changing Britain need to be argued, loud and clear. The world is not going to stop in its tracks so that some British people can remain comfortably non-multicultural. The British need to address their own intolerance.