Comment: Behind closed doors, the Tories are fundamentally divided on immigration

Ian Dunt: 'Some feel immigration is a product of neo-liberal economics, shunting workforces around the world in a bid to cut domestic wages and working conditions'
Ian Dunt: 'Some feel immigration is a product of neo-liberal economics, shunting workforces around the world in a bid to cut domestic wages and working conditions'
Ian Dunt By

Most politicians are fundamentally self-serving animals. Only those with mixed constituencies – think Diane Abbott or Sarah Teather - ever dare say anything positive about immigration. For the vast majority, the only tolerable immigration message is a negative one.

Douglas Carswell's Sunday Telegraph piece was a case in point. In it, he hit back at those who had raised complaints about his comments on an EU Commission report which branded benefit tourism a myth.  He also took issue with criticism of the Telegraph's front page treatment of the report, which reported that 611,779 workless EU migrants were now living in the UK.

The clear implication of the Telegraph front page was that they were work-shy benefit scroungers, but the figure included all sorts of people, such as school students, spouses and retired people.

Carswell wrote:


You and I could not pitch up in Milan or Paris, and, having proved we were looking for work, start claiming dole without having paid into their system. The European Commission has had to spin the facts to down play the impact of benefit tourism. That is why the Commission and their pet pundits behind this report seem to be saying 'benefit tourism? What benefit tourism? Nothing to see. Move along'. Except if you look carefully, there is plenty to see.

Carswell ends with the now traditional demand for an 'open' debate on immigration.

We need an honest debate about it. Having 2.3 million Europeans pitch up in our country is, and will continue to have an impact. Pundits and think tankers who would not recognise a swing voter in a marginal seat need to stop trying to shout down a debate that they do not own. The facts about mass immigration might be inconvenient, but they remain the facts – and the Telegraph did well to highlight them.

Compare and contrast that with today's Boris Johnson column in the newspaper, which seems to have been specifically written in response to Carswell.

Johnson writes:

Before we all collapse in a xenophobic frenzy, let me ask: which European nation provides the most foreigners? It’s us! The British. We live abroad in greater numbers than any other country; we have been pushing up the prices in some European destinations for decades. Should we have a crazed exchange of populations – kicking the French out of Kensington in retribution for what they have done to house prices, while they kick us out of the Dordogne? What a miserable, blinkered, pointless and fundamentally stupid way of looking at the world. And don’t think, by the way, that we Britons are above claiming benefits in other EU countries. A spectacular report just out shows that one in 10 Brits in Germany is on benefits – about 10,000 in all. I suppose we could just urge the Germans to stop being so soft-hearted and kick out our kids as soon as they lose their jobs. But then what if it was your kid, and what if they were married to a German and had their own children in a German school? Suddenly it’s not quite so clear-cut, is it?

The pieces reveal some of the political faultlines of the Tory party's internal struggle with immigration. You rarely hear it, because only a handful of London MPs (the mayor is an honourary member) would not be committing political suicide by standing up for immigration. But internally, the party is split between shire Tories and cosmopolitan Tories. Shire Tories share the Ukip view of immigration. They may sometimes grudgingly accept immigration has had some positive effects, but they view diversity with suspicion. Their political background harks back to a simpler time where everyone could understand one another and you knew the name of your local butcher.

Cosmopolitan Tories are usually Londoners. Their political views accept labour movement as the other side of the coin to capital fluidity. They want as much freedom for labour movement over national borders as possible, within the unfortunate limitations imposed by the parochial concerns of the population and their less enlightened colleagues.

The shire Tories significantly outnumber cosmopolitan Tories, but cosmopolitan Tories occupy more influential positions in the party, not least that of the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer.

This little-commented on disparity is not just political – it is also cultural. A London background tends to give people an admiration for diversity. And for younger MPs, diversity is all they knew. There is no gold-tinted homogenous past to hark back to.

The same cultural distinction exists in the Labour party, with city-dwelling Labour MPs taking an altogether more liberal approach to immigration than their colleagues from the northern industrial heartlands, where workers feel more under threat from migrants undercutting wages.

The politics are similar, but different. Many Labour MPs are wary of the relentless media and political attack on immigrants, who then have to endure the irony of hearing politicians berate the lack of an "open" debate on the issue. They see it as part of their left-wing duty to stand up for such a marginalised group.

But others feel immigration is a product of neo-liberal economics, shunting workforces around the world in a bid to cut domestic wages and working conditions. Mass immigration is the weapon capital is using to lower workers' wages.

That's why Miliband's response to the immigration issue is to focus on the treatment of the worst paid. Get past the harsh rhetoric of the pre-speech briefings and you find policies aimed almost exclusively at protecting the domestic and foreign low paid. It's his best way of keeping the party together while trying to deliver what sounds like a tough message on immigration.

It at least has the benefit of consistency. The Tory response has been to try to pacify public wariness over immigration with increasingly authoritarian and ugly Home Office stunts, including the 'go home' vans and UK Border Agency spot checks at London Tube stations. Labour used to do the same thing in office. On the one hand they implemented a broadly liberal immigration policy, while shouting out BNP-style rhetoric about 'British jobs for British workers' on the other.

That's the irony of the constant demands for an 'open' debate on immigration. Most people who use the phrase are alluding to the imaginary idea that all critics are accused of racism. It's a laughable proposition which can be disproved by a glance at the tabloids on any given day.

But actually we really don't have an open debate on immigration. Internally, the political class - left and right, Tory and Labour - is cut down the middle by its political and cultural effects. But few MPs have the bravery to challenge the perceived public opposition of immigration.

So, for now, this debate remains internal, conducted in hushed tones, while the public are fed the red meat of angry rhetoric and authoritarian Home Office initiatives. We would do well to grow up a bit and have a more public conversation. Who knows? Doing so might even make the public slightly less hostile.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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