By Jane West
British politics took an unpleasant dog-whistle turn this week as Cameron attempted to shift attention from his government’s abject economic failure with the tried and tested diversionary tactic of blaming ‘immigration’.
It is no accident that only a few days after a budget that announced further and deeper austerity, another round of cuts, a further year of below inflation pay restraint, and failure to reduce debt or deliver any growth, Cameron announced a series of policies aimed at ‘immigrants’.
Not only is it a cynical attempt to draw attention away from the real problem – his government’s failing policies – but it is shifting onto the agenda set by UKIP. Following their thumping defeat by UKIP, which pushed them into third place in the Eastleigh by-election, the Tories have clearly decided to occupy UKIP’s populist, chauvinist territory on this issue.
The measures Cameron has announced are a pure case of dog-whistling, as they address neither real problems nor will lead to any effective results, apart from in people’s minds.
Cutting access to Jobseeker’s Allowance to non-nationals after 6 months unless they can prove they have actively sought work is draconian. But it will have a less than marginal impact on benefit payouts. Firstly, as the figures indicate, EU migrants arrive with the 100% aim of working – so they should not find it hard to prove they are seeking work. And secondly, such is their determination that most of them find work of a kind and so benefit take-up is much lower than for the resident population. Of the net 2 million migrants from the EU accession countries (A8) since 2004 only 13,000 have claimed JSA!
Other measures simply create an environment of blame – and are likely to rebound as much on the resident population as the scape-goated migrant. For example, the proposal that local councils should set a five-year period of proven ‘local residency links’ – a measure being pioneered by Tory Hammersmith & Fulham Council – will not make a visible scratch let alone a dent on the national waiting list of two million.
But it may well make it harder for people moving for work from different parts of the country to qualify for social housing.
Of course, the aim is not to improve availability of housing – for which a programme of mass building of social housing would also have a benign economic impact. It is simply to divert blame for the shortage of affordable housing from the real culprit – the government that refuses to address it – onto a belief that residents are being crowded-out of non-existent homes by EU migrants.
However, it is not just the Tories on the anti-immigration band-wagon. Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg broke with his party’s more progressive approach on the issue by flagging up Cameron’s speech on Monday with an anti-immigration speech of his own the Friday before. In it Clegg proposed ending the Lib Dems long-standing policy of an amnesty for long-term ‘illegal’ immigrants that had broken no other laws and introducing a system of ‘bonds’ for visitors visas from a range of countries.
The latter measure would simply lead to tit for tat measures from the countries concerned – I imagine British visitors would find it delightful to have to place a £3,000 bond to visit China or Brazil! Quite understandably, as Home Secretary Teresa May has grandstanded her refusal to make it easier for Chinese people to get British visas, British business people and tourists are finding that they are having to cross more hurdles to get Chinese visas themselves!
The Lib Dems have nothing to gain in votes from such an anti-immigration turn. Nor have Labour, despite indications that sections of Labour think the rise of UKIP requires also some step in their direction from Labour.
For example, this was the interpretation of Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper’s ‘tough on migrants’ speech in the aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election.
But this is entirely misplaced and will simply feed the racist, dog whistle agenda which always works against Labour however much it concedes to it.
First, Labour came fourth in Eastleigh because the rest of the vote divided between three parties rather than two, not because its voters migrated to UKIP. Labour’s total share of the vote was unchanged in Eastleigh (going from 9.6% in 2010 to 9.82% in the by-election) – a traditional Lib/Tory seat. Its failure to capitalise on the fall of 14.4% in the Lib Dem vote is a red herring. It is no indicator of the national picture, which cannot be based on the result in one prosperous, Southern suburban seat that Labour can never expect to win.
More seriously, a compilation of polling returns by YouGov in February this year showed that of UKIP voters, 70% were deserters from the Tory Party, while only 7% came from Labour. Labour has nothing to gain and only votes to lose by making concessions to the turn in the agenda to whip up racism and anti-immigration fears and prejudices.
Unite Against Fascism and One Society Many Culture’s joint conference on 2nd March at the TUC – attended by over 400 activists from around the country and most national trade unions – set a goal of driving racism and fascism off the political agenda.
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