Why have the Tories given up on fixing immigration?

30 December 2021

11:48 PM

30 December 2021

11:48 PM

In the fiercely competitive world of politics, it is not often that an opponent presents you with an Achilles heel that runs the whole way up the back of his leg.

It would be even more unusual for someone presented with such a copious target to then fail to go in hard, studs-up against it. Yet both those conditions prevail in British politics today.

The Labour party’s bizarre attitude towards immigration policy ought to render it utterly incapable of depriving the Conservatives of a parliamentary majority. And yet the Conservatives are conspiring to undermine rather than underline their own natural advantage on this crucial issue.

The Labour MP Nadia Whittome has just reminded us that her party’s approach to the subject is kryptonite for the masses, by sharing her thoughts on it on social media.

‘To stop people dying in the Channel, we must completely reimagine our immigration system. The status quo is free movement for the rich only. FM [free movement] for all would not only benefit the person moving, it would reduce exploitation by criminal gangs and employers, benefiting everyone,’ she claimed.

To stop people dying in the Channel, we must completely reimagine our immigration system.

The status quo is free movement for the rich only. FM for all would not only benefit the person moving, it would reduce exploitation by criminal gangs and employers, benefitting everyone.

— Nadia Whittome MP (@NadiaWhittomeMP) December 26, 2021

This statement in favour of creating a universal right for any foreign national citizen to move to the UK should be meat and drink for a competent Tory attack machine and yet the party’s new chairman, Oliver Dowden, has failed to respond to it.

And anyone who thinks that Whittome’s latest comment cannot be convincingly used to attack Labour in general – perhaps because of her status as the youngest MP, the ‘baby of the House’ rather than a key frontbencher – hasn’t been paying sufficient attention.

Because Whittome represents the authentic voice of the Labour membership on the issue. Indeed, at the 2019 Labour conference a motion was passed on immigration policy that contained even more sweeping recommendations for the relaxation of controls than Whittome came up with the other day.

The motion, which informed the party’s election manifesto later that year, pledged among other things to ‘maintain and extend free movement rights… close all detention centres… reject any immigration system based on incomes, migrants’ utility to business, and number caps/targets… ensure unconditional right to family reunion… extend equal rights to vote to all UK residents’.

In his own leadership campaign early in 2020, Keir Starmer made a pledge to ‘Defend Migrants’ Rights’ one of his ten key commitments. Labour members were invited to vote for him on the following basis: ‘Full voting rights for EU nationals. Defend free movement as we leave the EU. An immigration system based on compassion and dignity. End indefinite detention and call for the closure of centres such as Yarl’s Wood.’

It was an entirely one-sided piece of positioning, without a single word about strengthening border controls or facilitating more deportations of illegal immigrants.

And Starmer has stuck to that stance during nearly two years as leader, almost never questioning Boris Johnson about the Channel migration shambles and having his spokesmen stress the need to create more ‘safe routes’ rather than making the case for tougher controls.

When she was chairwoman of the Home Affairs Committee, the new shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper also made the conditions in which new arrivals were accommodated rather than the need for border control the basis of her concern about irregular Channel migration. She lambasted Priti Patel for housing some in Napier Barracks, which had after all been deemed good enough for Armed Forces personnel for many years.

The extent of the open goal facing the Tories is highlighted by current opinion polling showing that immigration and asylum is rated the number one political priority by people who voted Leave, a vast cohort that includes many of the Red Wall voters that Labour must win back if it is to mount a challenge for power at the next election.

This is in stark contrast to Remain voters who form the bedrock of Labour’s current support and rank it down among the dead men in seventh place.

So pretty much all the Conservatives need to do is make a good fist of immigration control and they can cement in place their winning electoral coalition of traditionalist shire Tories and working class Red Wallers.

And yet, 2021 has been a catastrophe on that front. Not only have we seen the Channel numbers increase nearly four-fold rather than the route being made ‘unviable’ as promised, but that comes on top of an unconditional offer of settlement to all holders of BNO passports in Hong Kong and a very large emergency resettlement scheme for Afghanis. Those latter two policies could perhaps have been swallowed by migration-sceptic voters had the first and most visible priority been fulfilled rather than trashed.

The cumulative effect of all this is to give Labour a free ride on what should be a disabling weakness. Ms Patel’s Immigration and Borders Bill will merely tinker at the edges of the broken asylum system. Unless or until the Prime Minister is willing to implement standard offshore processing of applicants and withdraw the UK from the 1951 Refugee Convention and other outdated international protocols – as Michael Howard pledged in the 2005 Tory manifesto – this situation will continue to prevail.

Bigger boats will bring ashore more illegal landers than ever in 2022, putting an ever-greater strain on a British welfare state funded in large part by something called ‘national insurance’ and intended as a safety net for UK citizens, not a featherbed for the world.

‘We’ve stopped telling you that Labour doesn’t care, because we don’t care either’ is not a message that will keep those Red Wall bricks solid for the blues. Yet that is what is being heard right now.

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