With Labour at last accepting that immigration is an issue, the Coalition needs to move fast, says Benedict Brogan.
By Benedict Brogan
Published: 8:14PM BST 02 Jun 2010
It is still just about possible to go through life without spotting how Britain is being changed by immigration – if you are a hermit, or live on one of the more remote of the Hebridean islands, or are insulated from the realities of everyday life by money or power.
If you are a politician, of course, you can choose not to see. Gordon Brown presided, both as chancellor and prime minister, over a record influx of migrants, but was indifferent to the consequences. Isolated in a world bounded by Downing Street, his official Jaguar and his ethnically homogenous Scottish village above the Forth, his was never the experience of most citizens, in particular those in the capital.
When Gillian Duffy tried to raise the issue with him during the campaign, his instinctive response was to dismiss her as a bigot. No matter that six months before, he had found it politically expedient to identify himself with such concerns. “I have never agreed with the lazy elitism that dismisses immigration as an issue, or portrays anyone who has concerns about immigration as a racist,” he assured us, before doing just that to Mrs Duffy. “Immigration is … a question about what it means to be British.”
In fact, immigration ranks as one of Labour’s greatest, most durable failures. Worse than that, it was a wilful failure – as secret documents revealed earlier this year, Labour opened the floodgate for social as well as economic reasons, in an attempt to change the culture of the country and “rub the Right’s nose in diversity”.
The consequences, in terms of social tensions and pressures on local services, can be seen almost everywhere. During the election campaign, immigration was consistently the most important issue for voters, after the economy. Yet Mr Brown was oblivious to it. He was the dealer who got us hooked on cheap foreign labour, and its artificial highs of unsustainable growth and low inflation. Ministers learned not to ask awkward questions. With no reliable statistics on who was coming in, who was here, and who was going out, “I don’t know” become a legitimate excuse.
Tony Blair set the orthodoxy by proclaiming that we were not a “high-immigration country”, and his followers duly repeated it. David Blunkett, who could normally be relied on to speak plainly on behalf of those who knew things were changing but could not say why, pronounced that there was “no obvious upper limit” on immigration.
And until the economic crisis hit, he was right. The numbers say it all. Net immigration jumped in a decade from about 41,000 a year to 233,000 in 2007. It fell to 163,000 in 2008, but only because more people left the country. The number of people entering Britain that year actually rose, from 574,000 to 590,000. Even now, they keep on coming, drawn to a country that offers more opportunities (and even greater welfare support) than just about anywhere else.
The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, released last week, show that long-term immigration is down, but still running at 503,000 a year. Even more telling, the number of people applying for British citizenship in 2009 was 24 per cent higher than the previous year, at 193,810. And the number who were granted it was up by 58 per cent, from 129,375 to 203,790.
Jill Matheson, the National Statistician, predicts that within less than 20 years, the population will rise from 61 million to 70 million. Nearly three quarters of that increase will be made up of immigrants. Already one in 10 of those living in Britain was born abroad. These are all whacking great numbers, which tell us that if one strips out the momentary effects of the downturn, immigration continues to outpace our capacity to cope.
Mr Brown talked of “lazy elitism”, and that is precisely what he and his colleagues suffered from until the voters disabused them. Immigration was a closed subject, to be used solely as a political weapon against the Conservatives. Labour would look for ways to raise the issue as bait, in the hope that the Tories might bite, and be damned as racists.
Yet now power has been lost, and the old views can be disowned, the party has started talking about national identity and the impact of migrants with the bug-eyed enthusiasm of an iPad bore. For those fighting to lead Labour, the topic has gone from taboo to mandatory. The four Identikit candidates likely to be on the ballot when nominations close – the Miliband brothers, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham – all admit that they did not pay enough attention to what they were being told on the doorstep, namely that we are full up. Amid the soul-searching on the Left, there is an acknowledgment that Mr Brown’s general refusal to acknowledge such concerns contributed to defeat. David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect, has even called on Labour to become the anti-immigration party.
This was, perhaps, a rhetorical flourish, but it shows the danger for David Cameron and the Coalition. Though the Labour contest has ages to run, there are plenty involved, especially the frontrunner, David Miliband, who have spotted an opportunity to outflank the Coalition from the Right. Scrapping ID cards and DNA testing, he argues, plays well with the chattering classes, but badly with ordinary voters, who believe only criminals and illegal immigrants have anything to fear from such intrusive measures.
Mr Cameron has to produce an answer, and fast. The focus during his first weeks has been on the improbability of coalition-building and the imperative of reducing the deficit. Events are already closing in. Downing Street navigated the implosion of David Laws with a combination of ruthlessness and calm assurance, and has emerged remarkably unscathed, if one is prepared to ignore the manifold contradictions upon which the Coalition is built.
The Government now needs to show that it understands the imperative to stem the numbers of migrants pouring in to Britain. Without action on immigration, the necessary work of slashing welfare spending, and therefore the deficit (and eventually the debt), cannot truly be said to be under way.
In private, ministers say that immigration is “on the front burner”. Damian Green, the Immigration Minister, was due to make a preliminary announcement on the idea of an annual limit on the numbers coming in from outside the EU today, although the massacre in Cumbria has forced a postponement. We are, I am told, weeks away from an announcement on how the cap will be implemented, although I gather ministers have yet to address the delicate question of the precise number. Ominously, concerns have been raised about the ease with which pro-immigration groups can use the courts to stymie politicians who want to act.
In his everyday life before May 6, Mr Cameron was never one to cut himself off from the world around him. He can see the changes immigration has produced, not least in London, where the impact is most keenly felt. The danger for him now is an encircling move from Labour that exploits the Coalition’s silence on an issue that still burns bright in the public mind – and rightly so.
Published in the Telegraph: