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On immigration, Theresa May makes her own pitch to working people

Daniel Bentley, 6 October 2015

It is tempting to see Theresa May’s uncompromising message on immigration today as little more than positioning for the Tory leadership. By arguing that it holds little economic or fiscal advantage for Britain, while straining infrastructure and threatening cohesion, the home secretary is not just holding David Cameron’s feet to the fire on his commitment to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands (with profound implications for his EU negotiations, too). She is also burnishing her credentials no end among many on the Conservative right.

But as well as mapping out a route to the leadership May is also charting a course to general election victory in 2020; she is pitching herself to the country at large, which is more concerned about immigration than almost any other issue and feels that it is being ignored by most Westminster politicians, including Cameron and his acolytes. Three quarters of people think that immigration should be reduced and more than half think it should be ‘reduced a lot’, and yet net migration continues to rise.

So Theresa May is exploiting the weakness of many of her Tory rivals but, with an eye on 2020, she is also exploiting Labour’s failure to tackle an issue which has crippled Jeremy Corbyn’s party at the ballot box. What only a few within Labour have come to realise so far is that the labelling of controlled immigration as ‘right-wing’ is a category error that has cost Labour the last two general elections and will almost certainly cost it the next one too.

Jon Cruddas, who was Ed Miliband’s policy coordinator, has recently charted how Labour has lost support since its last election victory in 2005 not principally among educated middle-class people but amongst socially conservative working class voters. These people are twice as likely to be from the socio-economic groups DE as AB, they almost all mention immigration among their biggest concerns, and they are abandoning Labour in their droves.

Why should this be so? For some of the very reasons that Theresa May outlines in her conference speech today and from which many of the middle class commentariat instantly recoil: large influxes of immigrant workers make employment conditions more difficult for British workers. The work on this has been done for Civitas by the Cambridge economist Bob Rowthorn, who also finds that the economic and fiscal gains from large-scale immigration are small compared with the pressure they place on infrastructure.

Those who benefit from an increased pool of cheap labour are employers, of course, and so it is little surprise that those who are most economically liberal – from Tony Blair to Boris Johnson to the staunchly free market Adam Smith Institute – tend also to be most comfortable with open-door immigration. Viewed like this, immigration controls begin to look rather less right-wing.

Those on the Labour left have different reasons for welcoming immigration: it is a matter of being nice to people coming to Britain for a better life. This is an honourable position, but it is incumbent on those who make it to be clear about which group of people they are prioritising. Some, such as the former cabinet minister John Denham, have questioned how liberal immigration came to be seen as a core value of the Labour Party. But for the most part those on the left are determined to leave the subject to the right in something of a display of moral superiority. It was indicative of the kind of politics that Corbyn is ushering in that he failed to even mention immigration during his first conference speech as Labour leader last week, and dismissed the subject in comments elsewhere.

Much has been made of George Osborne’s strategy of defining the Conservatives as the party of ‘working people’ (a phrase he used eight times in his speech yesterday), adopting Labour policies such as the national living wage and the introduction of a national infrastructure commission. Osborne is currently May’s biggest rival for the top job. But there is nothing that will appeal to ordinary working voters more, and cut Labour off from any path back to power, than if the Conservatives can make serious inroads into the present scale of immigration.

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