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Image: Julia Nikhinson / Shutterstock
Image: Julia Nikhinson / Shutterstock

Don't underestimate the Farage threat

Sir Vince Cable
January 8, 2024

Most commentators, including myself, have assumed that the timing of the next general election will be primarily determined by economic news. But there is now talk of an immigration election.

First, the Prime Minister has staked his reputation on stopping the small boats. He recently took the political risk of appearing at an unedifying Italian gathering of extreme right parties and personalities to underline a shared commitment to curbing immigration. “Illegal immigration” he said was “overwhelming our country”. The speculation is that, if the legal and political obstacles to the Rwanda Bill can be overcome, an election could follow soon after the first successful flight removing asylum seekers.

The other source of speculation is Nigel Farage. He is dropping heavy hints that, if the Rwanda scheme continues to stall, or fails, he will mobilise an electoral challenge at the next general election probably through Reform UK, formerly UKIP. He has a simple, compelling, attack line: the Conservative’s record on legal and illegal immigrations has failed to deliver on taking back control.

His high-profile intervention would, at the very least, split the Conservative vote. The bigger aim would be to create a powerful new force on the political right following the examples of Trump in the USA, Wilders in Holland, the AfD in Germany, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy and the Democrats in Sweden all of whom have demonstrated the power of immigration as a vote-winning issue.

As to the first, even if ‘success’ is achieved, the polling data (notably that of John Burt Murdoch of the FT) suggests that there is little prospect of winning over undecided voters in this way. Concern about immigration is largely restricted to Conservative-inclined voters. Moreover, there is a risk that these voters will feel that not enough is being done and switch to Reform UK. 

A politically smart government would change the subject, not double down on it. Even sympathetic voters might well react badly to unpleasantness as they did when Michael Howard alienated voters in 2005 with his dog whistle “are you thinking what we are thinking?”. 

Sunak’s seeming inability to see these dangers is already leading some of his own supporters to despair of his political judgement. Indeed, some wonder if his unpopularity and political ineptitude will lead to yet another leadership challenge and the collapse of his government.

The Farage threat is real. If he sees the immigration issue weakening rather than strengthening the government, he may see opportunities for a political breakthrough for Reform UK and for himself. He is, surely, bored by GB News and celebrity shows. His considerable vanity will have been boosted by his large, adoring, fan club on the political right, his success over Brexit and his evidently superior debating skills to Sunak. He is unlikely to be bought off with a peerage (or be offered one).

The Farage threat is real Quote

Labour and the Lib Dems must be revelling in the government’s discomfort. But they need to be careful since immigration is potentially a political threat to them also. Immigration arouses powerful, visceral, reactions especially when linked to identity, race, religion or language. 

Across Europe, as in Germany, France, Holland, Italy or Sweden, insurgent parties have cut into support for all mainstream parties. Even in the USA, long open to migration, Trump and the Republicans have demonstrated the potency of border control as an issue.

The UK is no exception: from the antisemitic, anti-immigration scares of the early 20th century to the late 1960s when race and immigration dominated politics, with periodic spasms since. Hubris led Tony Blair to underestimate the dangers as well as the benefits of promoting EU ‘free movement’ building up the discontent which fed into Brexit. 

Even before Brexit dominated Brexit politics, we saw how elections could be swayed by immigration. In May 2010, an election dominated by economic crisis, many votes were swayed by Gordon Brown’s overheard remarks about the Rochdale ‘bigot’ and Cleggmania was deflated by tabloid attacks on the Lib Dems’ generous approach to amnesties for illegal immigrants,

The 2024 general election may not be an immigration election and the Labour party may be on the way to a landslide victory such that it would not greatly matter what the issues are in the campaign. But neither of these assumptions is secure and parties should prepare for immigration to be at the heart of the election debates. There are several lessons from experience.

First, numbers matter. The recent figures of 1.2 million immigrants and 672,000, net of emigration, have caused panic amongst those obsessed by immigration but are highly anomalous: a product of the pandemic and its end. The Office of Budget Responsibility and the Office of National Statistics think that 245,000 (net) is a sensible assumption looking ahead which is embarrassing only for the Conservatives, who foolishly promised a maximum of 100,000, a totally arbitrary number. To put the small boats crisis in perspective, the estimated annual figure is around 30,000, under 5% of net immigration: worth remembering when we are told we are being ‘swamped’.

Within the net immigration total over half are overseas students (and their dependents) from outside the EU – 378,000. They are not immigrants since the vast majority, an estimated 80 to 85 per cent - return home after their studies having contributed generously to our export earnings and the viability of British universities. The minority who stay do so on work visas having proved to be valuable employees (it would make absolutely no sense for people who have paid £30,000 a year in tuition fees to stay behind for precarious, low-paid work as illegal immigrants).

Second, tone matters. Addressing immigration-sceptics as bigots and racists is counter-productive and wrong. It is certainly true that, overqll, immigration is economically beneficial since migrant workers (though not dependents) are younger, tax paying members of the labour force usually filling gaps in the labour market. And helping our stag-flationary economy to grow. But there are costs too. 

One of the most serious arises from pressure on the housing stock since housing shortages are often in areas of labour shortage. Of course, immigrants are not the cause of shortages of affordable homes in Britain’s highly dysfunctional housing market; but additional demand necessarily boosts prices and rents. Young immigrants also grow old eventually. Immigration is not the cause of underlying economic and social weaknesses; but neither is it a panacea.

Third, the small boats problem - the invisible face of illegal immigration - is in many ways a Conservative problem generated by exaggeration and scaremongering followed by ludicrous over-promising. Asylum seekers account for around 10 per cent of net immigration and Britain is only 20th amongst European countries for the scale of the problem in per capita terms. 

Nonetheless there is a real issue which confronts any government. The existing asylum regime has broken down; the complex legal arguments around Rwanda disguise the simple fact that it is no longer possible to distinguish, in practice, between refugees from political persecution and refugees from destitution. Moreover, the potential numbers seeking sanctuary far exceed what any democratically elected government will be able to accommodate. Some form of control – rationing compassion – is inevitable but hopefully generous. The reported proposal from Keir Starmer that Britain should offer to take a quota within a coordinated European border control regime is a constructive way forward.

There are some areas of migration policy where basic decency demands change. The idea that only high earners can be allowed to marry overseas partners and bring them to Britain is appalling and, on the government’s own admission, affects only ‘the low tens of thousands’. A credible liberal voice has somehow to retain this compassion while recognising that free movement across borders is an unattainable ideal.

Vince Cable profile

Sir Vince Cable is a former Secretary of State for Business, and led the Liberal Democrats from 2017-19.

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