The more politicians lay the blame on immigration, supported in this by an immigrant-phobic media, the more people will believe what they say.
Over the last month we’ve seen Britain’s big three political parties trip over each other as they bid to out-Farage one another in their rhetoric on immigration. The Tories, as you might expect, took the hardest line and announced measures to curb benefits to immigrants. The Labour Party, still bearing the scars from losing the last general election, mounted a broadside against their own failure in government to curb immigration. And the Lib Dems swung away from their traditionally ‘liberal’ policy on immigration by abandoning support for an amnesty for illegal immigrants and laying out plans for a £1,000 (€1,184) bond for those visiting from “high-risk” countries.
But it isn’t just Nigel Farage and his increasingly wacky UKIP friends who hold such sway over the main three parties. They’re also terrified of opinion polls. The truth is that British people are far more afraid of immigration than our European neighbours. Oxford University’s Migration Observatory shows that the level of people saying immigration has gone ‘too far’ has hovered around 60% since the late 1980s.
What politicians from the big three parties seemingly fail to grasp is the role that they play in fanning the flames of immigrant bashing in the right wing press. Their role in this is twofold: firstly they persistently reinforce the ‘fact’ that immigrants are a drain on services and a threat to society and then they fail to deal with the underlying causes for people’s concern.
And those causes of concern are very real: There is a chronic lack of truly affordable housing in the UK. Many people wait for years on social housing waiting lists, others are forced onto the rental market. But, according to David Aaronovitch of The Times, only 11%o f new migrants have been allocated social housing, compared with 17% of UK-born residents living in this sector. With nine out of ten new migrants not moving into social housing governments can’t seriously blame immigration for our housing crisis.
Of course people are worried about their jobs. Despite the recession not yet hitting the jobs market as hard as expected we still have over 2.5 million people unemployed in the UK and one in five young people out of work. But this isn’t because all of the jobs are going to immigrants. In fact the Office for National Statistics note that just one in ten new jobs goes to a migrant. To their credit the Labour Party has spoken about the downward pressure that immigration can have on wages. They are absolutely right to call for much tougher enforcement of minimum wages and they were absolutely wrong not to clamp down on this when they were in government.
With the Tories freezing some benefits, forcing people from their homes with the bedroom tax and consistently bashing those relying on social security it’s no wonder that there are concerns about non-UK citizens abusing the remnants of the welfare system this Government is so intent on dismantling. But blaming immigrants for sponging of the state belies the fact that they are less than half as likely to claim working age benefits as those born in the UK.
Despite the fact that less then two in ten people believe immigrants cause a problem in their neighbourhood and that the myths around immigration fail to stack up when confronted with the evidence, almost two thirds of us think that there are too many immigrants in the UK. The more politicians in lay the blame on immigration – and they’re supported in this by an immigrant-phobic media – the more people will believe what they say.
A cosy consensus has formed in Westminster. It’s one which sees politicians so drenched in opinion poll data and so focused on a fear of losing votes to UKIP that they forget their own principles. It sees all three main parties using immigration as a scapegoat for the problems in society which recent governments have either created or failed to fix.
This country is indeed facing a crisis, but it’s not an immigration crisis. The vast majority of people living here, whether they were born in the UK or elsewhere, are paying the price for a crisis which they had no part in causing. Wages are stagnating, benefits are being cut and enough houses aren’t being built. It’s time to pull the wool from our eyes and refocus our anger on the financial system which caused the crisis and the cuts consensus in Westminster that is only making things worse.
This article was originally publishes in Huffington Post UK