Friday, August 20, 2010
The slide into the abyss can be clearly dated. Soon after the election of William Hague as Conservative leader, Philip Gould did a presentation to the cabinet identifying immigration as one of the few issues where the Tories, and Hague, could still outscore Labour. Suitably terrified by the prospect of young William tossing aside his baseball cap, donning a Union Jack t-shirt, and marching his crumbling blue rinse base down Dagenham Heathway, our attempted triangulation of race and immigration began.
How successful did this strategy for managing immigration as a political issue, as opposed to the management of migration itself, prove to be? At the time of the 1997 election, MORI’s Issue Tracker recorded the number of people citing race or immigration as the most important issue facing the nation at 3%. By last May’s election it was 38%. In 1997 the BNP stood 54 candidates and secured 36,000 votes, at an average of 664 votes per candidate. In 2010 they stood 339 candidates and obtained 566,000 votes, an average of 1,663 votes per candidate. A YouGov poll taken in March found that 69% of those questioned believed Labour’s management of immigration had been bad for the country, compared to 21% who thought it had been beneficial.
Set aside principles or morality. Even on its own terms, our political management of immigration has been a disaster. Trying to ape the language of the BNP succeeded only in boosting the BNP. Our use of inflammatory rhetoric to demonstrate our ‘toughness’, served only to draw attention to what the public viewed as one of our greatest policy failures. Take the heat out of the issue? We pumped the entire contents of an oil refinery on to the flames.
A Conservative Shadow Minister I met before the election expressed total incredulity at our strategy; “Does Peter Mandelson really think he can make the Conservative Party look weak on immigration? If you keep talking up the issue, the only winners will be us and the BNP”.
He was right. And we will pay an even heavier electoral price in the future if we don’t radically reassess how we negotiate the complex terrain of migration and race. Because if we don’t invest in a new compass, David Cameron will.