The witterings of Phil Woolas about immigration yesterday – where he accused The Spectator of contorting immigration figures and double-counting immigrants – have landed him in plenty trouble. Stephen Timms was on the Daily Politics today and conceded that Woolas was talking out of his hat. They weren’t our figures, they were from the ONS – and compiled under orders from Eurostat with its Labour Force Survey (LFS) scheme. Andrew Neil has written it up in a blog here. The government is at sea because even ministers in charge of the relevant departments have no idea about the scale of immigration in Britain.
This wee farrago brings three lessons for the Conservatives.
1. Honesty about immigration is crucial. The public can see with their own eyes the extent of it, and it’s no use accusing anyone who raises the topic of being xenophobic. David Cameron scored with a mature speech about immigration in 2008 – but has seldom returned to the topic. This won’t do. He needs to know the situation, and make sure all of his ministers do. Immigration has been the no.1 change of the Labour years and will affect everything. If he won’t talk about immigration, then parties like the BNP will.
2. Metrics are crucial. The ONS released these figures because it is required to do so by Eurostat. I’d argue that the quarterly immigration headcount should be formally released, not just given to journalists who ask for it on request. It should also be distributed within Whitehall. Right now, the LFS data is not used by any Whitehall department which is why even Woolas, the immigration minister, was without a clue. The LFS is more reliable than clipboard passenger survey data.
3. Think of the economic, not just the social, potential. Mass immigration gave Labour the opportunity to grow the economy without fixing welfare. They took that opportunity. So the economy grew by sucking in migrant labour, not eating into the dole queues. This is a serious dysfunction in the Labour market, key to the "broken society" theme that the Tories outline. From now on, immigration and welfare should be considered related issues.