When Jean Claude Juncker was “elected” EU Commission president, he indicated he’d be happy to work with Cameron to renegotiate some powers. The one ‘Red Line’ he would not give is the free movement of people, enshrined in the Treaty of Rome.
There’s an unpleasant xenophobia in British politics at the moment, where immigration is seen as a terrible thing, the worst thing, rather than an answer to the question “who’s going to pay for your pension?”. Most people, the left hand tail of the bell curve, who are considering voting UKIP are horrified by stories in the papers of schools where 75% of children speak a different language. Not knowing what the “availability heuristic” is, UKIPpers then go on to consider this near-universal. Over half of children in inner london schools are by some measure children of immigrants. Is that because that’s the level of immigration, or because British people tend not to try to bring up infants in central London?
There is no doubt the foreign born population of the UK has expanded rapidly to around 12%. By far the biggest inflow is a half a million Poles who arrived between 2001 and 2011. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent continues at a steady trickle, tens of thousands a year. There’s remarkably little evidence that wages have been driven down by this movement of people, though the claim is often made, evidence has come from individual industries, but certainly doesn’t represent a widespread picture. If you believed the rhetoric, the 147,000 who came from Pakistan represented the majority. But the numbers are dwarfed by the Poles, whom no-one can accuse of scrounging, and who’re often spoken of in a positive light, before a tirade against “the muslims”.
Low skilled work is losing its value, and so low skilled workers are facing stagnating wages world wide, not just in the UK. It’s just comforting to those who are suffering the effects of globalisation and automation to blame the polish blokes on the building site, rather than impersonal economic forces and the relentless march of technology. Throwing up barriers to the Poles coming here won’t help Poland get richer, or improve the standard of living of British-born workers. It’s an act of spite, that demeans this country, and should be resisted.
Cameron for his part has staked a “solution” to European migration as part of his negotiating strategy. I cannot see how this could possibly benefit him, except in the narrow, tactical sense in so far as it gives some answer which the army of Conservative activists can give to on the doorstep, while to the voters of Rochester and Strood consider whether or not to vote for Mark Reckless. The free movement of people is so fundamental to the EU project that it cannot be offered as a bribe to keep the UK in. So Cameron is going to face a humiliating climbdown at some point. Being cynical, He probably expects to do this some time in 2015, after the election. Will it be enough?
UKIP cannot be appeased. They are a protest. They are angry, and giving them the policies they “want” won’t win them over. They will simply find something else to be angry about. Though it’s not said openly, anti-muslim sentiment is being mixed with anti-immigration rhetoric, to overcome the relatively positive image of the largest new immigrant communities, the poles have in the minds of much of the electorate. The people who’re considering voting UKIP don’t by and large, hate the poles. But they are becoming much more open in their dislike of Muslims. And UKIP is not afraid to allow the misconceptions, the disinformation and the outright lies to continue. Sometimes they get caught saying something outright racist. Most of the time UKIP keep the right side of outright bigotry, and let the xenophobic mood music do the work. This is “dog-whistle” politics.
It’s not policies UKIPpers want, it’s leadership they’re craving from Politicians. And on immigration at least, Cameron has failed the test. Having already made one promise, to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, which he couldn’t deliver, is now doubling down. The political class, insofar as such a thing exists, has failed the test by failing to lay out why free movement of people, within the EU and from elsewhere will benefit everybody. The logic behind free trade – division of labour, comparative advantage and so forth is as true for where people live as it is for what we buy. In failing to point out where the electorate is wrong, as they are on immigration, politicians are failing in a duty to the people in a representative democracy.
Cameron’s gamble may pay off. But he either knows it cannot be delivered, in which case he’s lying, or thinks it can, in which case he’s putting political advantage ahead of the good of the country. Neither paints the Prime minister in a good light.