Friday, March 12, 2010

Immigration, are you thinking what I’m thinking

In recent week’s the Conservative Party have begun swinging further and further right, refining and strengthening their anti immigration messages. It began with a change in language for our pledge to cut immigration from “We will cut net immigration by 75%” to “We would cut net immigration from the current threshold of hundreds of thousands a year to tens of thousands”.

This was an important step towards introducing a cap, in theory that language provides a nominal cap of 99,999 immigrants per year. In reality it gives space for it to be even below that.

Then last night came the news that the Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, thinks that it should be a priority that everyone coming into the country can speak English. Speaking in response to Home Office figures that showed an expenditure in the past 6 years of £68 million on translation services he said:

“This all really has to change. It’s important that people who come to the UK should be able to speak English so that they can play a proper part in our life and culture. Of course there will be times when we give sanctuary to refugees who can’t speak English but it really should be a priority that everyone coming into the country can speak English.”

This is probably some of the strongest language yet on immigration from a senior member of the party, and seems to show, if not a shift in behind the scenes policy, a move to bring it to the forefront.

Before I go on, I should hang out my colours and say that just as I’m not a staunch eurosceptic, neither am I totally against immigration. Like Byrne Tofferings I believe immigration has an important economic benefit to the country, plus much of the immigration that most people have rallied against in recent years is from Europe, upon which we really have little control.

Public perception of immigration though is a very different thing. Poll after poll shows that after the state of the economy, and regardless of party affiliations, immigration is their biggest issue, however to date the Conservative party have been afraid to go near it.

In 2005, immigration was front and centre of what was effectively a failed campaign. The slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking” was supposed to apply to all of the manifesto issues but was so closely linked to immigration that it was easily jumped on as racist and even more easily attacked by the left. Was it actually meant to appeal to the UKIP and BNP voter? I doubt it, I suspect it was one of those seemed like a good idea at the time things which when plastered across billboards all over the country suddenly looked very different.

So, will shining a light on the immigration debate move the polls apart again after their seemingly inexplicable and unstoppable coming together? Maybe. Immigration is certainly an issue that mobilises the base, one of the things that won the Stratford Conservative Association over to Nadhim Zahawi was that despite being an immigrant and refugee himself, he has a very strong position on immigration (a position that includes the need for a cap and that all immigrants should speak English, so recent announcements now bring him in line with the party position).

Does it move a floating voter though? Who really knows, the polls would say yes, but then the polls say a lot of things. I titled this piece “are you thinking what I’m thinking?”, maybe though it should have been “are you thinking what they’re thinking?” The answer to that would be no. In this election we’re seeing a far greater divergence of positions and issues than ever before, campaigns are being fought on local issues in local areas, immigration will hit the button of voters in some areas, but in others it will be the economy, defence policy, schools, or healthcare.

So far the Conservative Party have been pilloried for not having a simple and clear set of three or four policies that relate what they stand for on a national level. What they have instead is a toolbox of ideas, policies and positions that local candidates can choose from to develop their own campaign on their own local issues. It’s a uniquely Conservative approach, the message isn’t being developed or pushed from the centre but devolved to the local level, where the local candidate knows best what is needed, not some faceless central office staff member.

Unlike in 2005, the party knows that you’re not thinking what they’re thinking, it’s understanding it’s own base principles and recognising that it’s their local candidates that are thinking what the voters are thinking, not them.

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