Monday, October 20, 2008

One Step Forward, One Step Back

UK immigration minister Phil Woolas, after a few preliminary throat-clearings, comes out with a remarkable Times piece in which he outlines a radical departure from previous Labour Party policy on immigration.
"Employers should, he believes, put British people first"

"We need a tougher immigration policy and we need to stop seeing it as a dilemma. It's not. It's easy. I'm going to do my best to help the British back to work"

"It's been too easy to get into this country in the past and it's going to get harder"

"We have to have a population policy and that means at some point we will be able to set a limit on migration. This Government isn't going to allow the population of this country to go up to 70 million. There has to be a balance between the number of people coming in and the number of people leaving."

Only a few years back Labour Party policy was "no limit" to either immigration or population. So an apparent right-about-turn.

The BBC gives the story top billing on radio news, it leads the Today Programme at 7 am on Saturday - pretty much the same time the story hits the website.

By the afternoon bulletins the coverage emphasises the criticism from pro-immigration lobbyists - which does no harm at all to a government wanting to appear tough and decisive. Naturally there's a storm of outrage from left bloggers horrified at Woolas' words.

The government must really be grateful to them - not them per se, but the horrified reaction they represent. Such reaction is vital to their brand positioning.

You have to presume that by now even Labour has noticed that the core demographic is crumbling pretty damn fast - has been really since at least 2005, but probably before that. (By core demographic I don’t mean the activist core but the voter core - very different people).

They listen to the focus groups. They see the polls. They know

a) immigration consistently comes at or near the top of voter concerns
b) the BNP vote increased something like 4 times between the 1999 Euro elections and the 2004 elections. In 2004 they got 4.8% of the vote - pretty near to electing MEPs with all that lovely Brussels gravy. They’d get nailed in one-member constituencies - but PR and the list system give them a chance of representation.
c) demographic change has accelerated even since 2004. We’ve had the odd incident like 7/7 as well.
d) UKIP took more than 16% of the vote in 2004. That implies a lot of discontented people using the PR system to send a message - and not one about the war in Iraq. Are there likely to be more discontented people now, or fewer ?
e) if you wanted to put together a checklist of conditions favouring the rise of a far-right party, you’d find this govt have ticked most of the boxes.

Labour do not want to see the BNP gaining seats and cash any more than the lefty bloggers do. They're worried about the core vote as well - and IMHO rightly so. Hence Mr Woolas.

Mr Woolas is the MP for Oldham - an exceptional place. Of the three towns where Asians - don't be mealy-mouthed, Laban - where Muslim youths rioted in summer 2001, Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, Oldham is the only place which did not see the riots followed by BNP representation on the local council. At the very least I’d expect that he’d get a respectful hearing from the left on matters of race and immigration. Maybe Jon Cruddas could pick up a few ideas from him. (I don't know Mr Woolas' secret anti-BNP weapon - for all I know it may simply be massive vote fraud, but I'm assuming not. This commenter seems to think he's a pretty straight guy.).

But from a marketing perspective it’s a good job he doesn’t get that respectful hearing. Because Labour aren’t sending signals to the horrified lefty bloggers (who, gullible souls, take him seriously) or to me (who doesn't believe a word), but to the neglected vote - those ordinary white working class joes (aka lumpen racists) who used to vote Labour as a matter of tribal course, but who have slowly grasped the fact that Labour is no longer the party of people like them.

To get their attention you need a bit of controversy. I note the horrified reactions all over the BBC. That’s just what Labour need if they’re trying to get the ‘we care’ message across to joe.

It’s not new. Blunkett was the past master at coming up with punitive quotes which horrified Guardianistas while delighting Joe Public - who then ignored him letting all the burglars out and the asylum seekers in. And it's an old tactic to announce some crowd-pleasing measure, which the BBC will obligingly make headline news - then quietly backtrack later, having got the right soundbites across.

As has now, predictably, happened here :

Two days after he appeared to sign up to a cap on the number of overseas workers welcomed into the UK, Phil Woolas, the Immigration Minister, admitted that no fresh measures were planned, and said he had been referring to existing schemes.

The Chick Yogs of this world still won't be pleased. After all, Woolas is pandering to tabloid hysteria with his nasty little soundbites. Why can't Labour robustly defend the case for immigration ?

Last summer the Labour blogger Chris Paul attended a meetup with Hilary Benn and Hazel Blears. He asked why they didn’t take a ‘more progressive line’ on immigration.

“Hazel recounted a rendezvous with twenty decent people relaxing in their gardens in her constituency whose number one concern was and is immigration. She feels Labour cannot win unless we are tough on immigration.”
Presumably the strategists think ‘the progressive line’ will go down like a lead balloon. I think they're right. Tough rhetoric will continue to be the order of the day.