Politicians haven’t been honest with the public about immigration. They still aren’t

The populist surge that helped propel Brexit isn’t going to help the UK take control of its borders, writes Tim Bale. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have been honest with voters about immigration policy, and that shows little signs of changing after a hard Brexit. The gap between rhetoric and reality has given politicians the opportunity to indulge in populist promises. People sense they are not being told the whole truth – but do they want to hear it? 

march for europe demo

At the March for Europe rally in London on 2 July 2016. Photo: Laura Morgan via a CC-BY 2.0 licence

We are living in a world where it’s no longer ‘the economy, stupid’. That’s not to say real wages, the cost of living, and tax-and-spend don’t matter to people anymore. Clearly, they still do. But they no longer trump nearly everything else when voters make up their minds. Politics has always been multidimensional, of course. It’s that analysts of voting behaviour and public opinion used to be able to conveniently collapse most of these dimensions into the left-right spectrum. Nowadays, that’s becoming harder and harder to do.

In the United Kingdom, as in many European countries, that familiar horizontal axis is now being intersected by another, vertical one. Call it what you will – GAL-TAN (Green, Alternative, Libertarian – Tradition, Authoritarian, Nationalist), demarcation-integration, communitarian-cosmopolitan or simply open-closed – this dimension suddenly seems to matter much more than it used to. Certainly, it helps explain why 52 per cent of those voting in last year’s European Union referendum plumped for Leave rather than Remain. It also gives us an insight into why nearly four million Brits chose the populist radical right UK Independence Party (UKIP) at the 2015 general election, despite the fact the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system meant most of them were ‘wasting’ their votes on candidates without a cat’s chance in hell of winning.

Just as political scientists had begun to take it for granted we had moved from an era of ‘position politics’ (the clash of big ideas between two tribes) to an era of ‘valence politics’ (where competence and credibility counts most), culture and identity came back with a bang, made all the more explosive by a pervasive feeling – especially among voters dispossessed and disoriented by the dizzying pace of social and economic change – of ‘disconnect’ with mainstream politicians.

Migration, and the multiculturalism that inevitably comes with it, is not the only contentious issue in all this. But it is, as opinion polls and media coverage attest, by far the biggest.

The UK has experienced waves of immigration before, most notably in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when Afro-Caribbean and South Asian citizens of its former colonies journeyed to the mother country to fill labour shortages created by the post-war boom. But it had never previously experienced the sheer volume and intensity of the wave of migrants that arrived after Tony Blair’s Labour government decided not to restrict the rights of EU citizens to live and work in the UK.

The arrival of millions of foreigners from Central and Eastern Europe was bound to spell trouble. After all, the post-war, postcolonial wave of immigrants was not absorbed without considerable political conflict. Those who thought similar problems could be avoided simply because the people pouring in after 2004 were white rather than black or Asian were forgetting xenophobia can be just as powerful as racism. They were also far too complacent about the willingness and the ability of the UK’s political class to engage honestly and responsibly with its citizens.

On the centre-left, Labour politicians failed to fess up to massively underestimating the number of Eastern Europeans who would flock to take up job opportunities provided by a booming economy. And given that migrants benefited that economy, they decided not to do anything practical to address it. This inaction was clearly at odds with the government’s rhetorical response, which culminated in then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown promising ‘British jobs for British workers’, either revealing himself to be a hypocrite, or creating expectations he couldn’t possibly fulfil.

The centre-right, however, proved just as unable of treating the public like grown-ups. Casting around for anything that might put it on side with voters, it tried just about every trick in the populist playbook: then-leader of the Conservative Party William Hague claimed the people had been betrayed by a ‘liberal elite’ wilfully deaf to their concerns about ‘bogus asylum-seekers’ and the threat the single currency and the EU posed to sovereignty. If nothing was done, he claimed, Britain would soon become ‘a foreign land’.

Hague’s successors, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, did more of the same, with the latter commissioning the infamous It’s not racist to talk about immigration. Are you thinking what we’re thinking? billboard posters in the run-up to the 2005 general election. For a while, David Cameron turned down the volume on migration and the EU, but it wasn’t long before he was bashing ‘Brussels’ and helping push through increasingly draconian measures designed to fulfil a pledge – possibly one of the craziest on record – to reduce net migration into the country ‘from the hundreds to the tens of thousands’.

If all this was designed to shoot the fox belonging to UKIP – a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration party led by consummate populist Nigel Farage – it proved completely counterproductive. By talking up clashes with the EU and the need to get a grip on immigration, the Tories (aided and abetted by their friends in Britain’s notoriously partisan media) both turbocharged UKIP’s signature issues and normalised ‘us vs them’. The genie was out of the bottle, released not by the extreme but by the mainstream.

And so it was that, driven by a fatal combination of panic and complacency, Cameron called the EU referendum. And so it was that he lost it, with defiant, nativist nationalism overcoming the latent fear of economic consequences.

Cowed by the evidence that hostility to immigration played a huge part in Leave’s win, and by the equally irrefutable logic that access to the EU’s single market and the customs union are irreconcilable with permanent limitations on the free movement of its citizens, Cameron’s successor as PM, Theresa May, seems to be preparing the country for the hardest of Brexits.

The irony – as bitter as it is delicious – is that Brexit, however hard, will not see the UK ‘take back control’ of its borders, let alone fulfil May’s aspiration to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands. Unless, that is, the government is prepared to crash the economy as well as crash out of the EU. Without the counterbalance of immigrants, the UK’s ageing population will lead to an unsustainable dependency ratio. More pressingly, the country’s health, construction, and social care systems will begin visibly to collapse without continuing inward migration. So will much of its fruit and vegetable sector, unless farmers are suddenly prepared to pay premium wages to persuade Brits who think such work is beneath them to consider returning to the fields.

Employers across a range of businesses have made this crystal clear to May, and she and her colleagues have admitted that freer movement will probably need to be part and parcel of any post-Brexit free trade deals they manage to strike with non-European countries.

The contradictions of this are as obvious as they are ridiculous. If the referendum was won in part because of the lie that tens of millions of Turks were about to descend on Britain unless it left the EU, then it is hard to see how Brits are going to welcome a deal with Ankara that will mean exactly that. Similarly, while they might cope with a few thousand New Zealanders making their way to London, they are bound to baulk at vast numbers of Indians and Chinese.

Quite how those contradictions can possibly be resolved is difficult to see. Indeed, there is no sign whatsoever that Conservative politicians will eventually level with the public on the immigration issue. And if they don’t, their Labour counterparts won’t dare to either. All of which means the continuation of the glaring gap between rhetoric and reality that has provided politicians, whether mainstream or more extreme, with the opportunity to appeal in predictably populist fashion to voters who sense they’re not being told the whole truth. Whether, of course, they are capable of handling that truth, should they ever be presented with it, is another matter entirely.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. It originally appeared at the New Zealand website Newsroom.

tim baleTim Bale (@ProfTimBale) is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. His books include The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron and Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband. He is one of the international academics who took part in the panel discussion Migration and Populism in the 21st Century on February 23 as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Capital Cities Universities Initiative.

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