UK Elections: Tories Finally Make Immigration An Issue


April 26, 2005

[Vdare.com note: David Orland`s article is about the two main parties, Labour and Conservative, but we would be remiss if we didn`t note that Britain`s parliamentary system makes it the land of, not only third parties, but of fourth and even fifth parties. Because the major parties are focusing on the immigration issue, the smaller parties like BNP and UKIP are presumably less likely to elect members.]

[Previously by David Orland: British Asylum Scandal Undermining Elite Immigration Enthusiasm]

Britain is an island nation. We can control our borders. But it will only happen if we have a government with the determination to act.”

– British Conservative Party leader Michael Howard (March 29, 2005).

At an April 22nd campaign speech in Dover, British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a startling admission. Flanked by the white chalk cliffs that have for so long served as metaphors of British sovereignty and independence, Blair remarked:

“Concern about asylum and immigration is not about racism. It is about fairness. People want to know that the rules and systems in place are fair. People also want to know that those they elect to government get it. That we are listening. We do get it. We are listening.”

How times have changed.

A year and a half ago, former Home Secretary David Blunkett was complacently informing the public that there was “no obvious upper limit” to the number of immigrants who could settle in the UK.

Since then, a damaging series of immigration and asylum scandals has led to the resignation of both Blunkett and his immigration minister, Beverley Hughes. Public dissatisfaction with Blair`s “leadership” on the issue, meanwhile, has reached the boiling point, with large majorities telling pollsters  they`ve lost confidence in the government.

Writing on the scandals for VDARE.COM last year, I pointed out that the Blair government`s vulnerability on immigration and asylum was a golden opportunity for the Conservative Party to make a comeback after years in the political wasteland—if only they would take it.

And so they have.

Early this year, the Conservatives launched an aggressive campaign to draw attention to New Labour`s disastrous track record on immigration and asylum. The new campaign was boldly announced with a full page Telegraph advertisement in which Tory leader Michael Howard proclaimed “I Believe We Must Limit Immigration.” [PDF]

Since then, the Howard team, guided by Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, has relentlessly returned to the issue, scoring points with voters and putting Labour on the defensive.

Howard`s campaign has had no trouble finding material. Migration to the UK has been at an all-time high since Blair took office in 1997, with the country averaging 157,000 immigrants per year. A suppressed government study, recently leaked to the press, estimates that as many as 500,000 may be illegally residing in the country.

And the issue has been kept fresh in the public mind by a series of almost weekly outrages—most recently, the revelation that police officer Stephen Oake was murdered by al-Qaeda operative/failed asylum seeker Kamel Bourgass.

In addition to citing the government`s many failures and broken promises, Howard has fielded an ambitious series of proposals aimed at getting Britain`s immigration system back into some kind of order. These include quotas on the number of asylum seekers, an Australian-style points system in awarding work permits, mandatory physical examinations (including HIV and TB testing) for would-be immigrants, and a new “border police” force exclusively devoted to enforcing immigration law.

Labour`s response to the Tory campaign has been a textbook lesson in Blairism. While party hacks portrayed the Tory leader as an unprincipled opportunist eager to stir public fears for political gain—Howard`s Jewish parents fled to England to escape the Holocaust—the Blair campaign has quietly adopted a lite version of almost every one of Howard`s proposals. Indeed, much of Blair`s Dover speech was cribbed from earlier Howard performances. Clearly, Labour is counting on the public`s short attention span.

It was probably inevitable that the Tories would run on a restrictionist platform in this election. Immigration and asylum regularly score at or very near the top in public issue rankings. They also happen to be the sole policy areas in which the Tories consistently outscore Labour in the polls.

It doesn`t take a Machiavelli to figure out the rest.

And yet by sticking to the issue and refusing to back down when confronted with the usual chorus of outraged liberals, Howard has forced Blair to bow to public opinion and admit what Labour spent the better part of the last decade denying: that mass immigration and state-sponsored multiculturalism are not blessings but rather problems in need of solution.

But will the Conservatives` strategy pay off on election day? With less than 10 days left before the general election, the latest polls  give Labour a solid if not insuperable lead over the Tories—between 5 and 10 points. Given the Tories` weak starting position in Parliament, it is highly unlikely that the election will result in a Conservative victory. The best the Tories can hope for, it seems, is to gain enough new seats to seriously discomfit the incoming Labour government—and thereby set the stage for the next election.

And that may well happen. Labour has been the only show in British politics since John Major quit the scene in 1997. This election has changed all that. Whatever the outcome on May 5th, Michael Howard has put the fight back into the Conservative Party and given Labour some nasty moments along the way.

Labour went into the election expecting yet another landslide. They`ll be lucky if they escape with a serviceable majority.

Either way, friends of immigration reform have already scored a victory. By putting immigration at the center of their campaign, the Tories have both forced into public view and legitimated a whole range of concerns which, until quite recently, were left to the taboo fringes of British politics.

Better yet, they`ve put the fear of public opinion back into the Labour Party, which has now committed itself to a broad range of reforms. While a Tory government would be preferable, the precedent set by their campaign will ensure that any outcome has reform on its agenda.

Mass immigration is a global problem. The same rules of discourse that until recently prevented discussion of the issue in Britain still prevent discussion of it in the United States.

Should the Tories score big on May 5th, you can expect the American press to finally get around to reporting it.

But even if they don`t, Michael Howard has given us all a valuable object lesson.

Immigration is on the agenda. And it`s not going away.

David Orland [email him], proprietor of the Faute De Mieux blog, lives in France. He writes regularly for Michelle Malkin`s Immigration Blog.