Coffee House readers may remember a classic John Cleese comedy film almost thirty years ago called Clockwise. It’s the story of middle class angst, frustration, desperation and ultimate triumph at the last possible moment. It’s most memorable quote is that of Cleese to his young companion:
‘It’s not the despair Laura, it’s the hope I cant stand.’
Such is the attitude of many Conservative backbenchers as they wait for the Prime Minister’s keynote speech on his renegotiation with the European Union due before Christmas, a speech that will inevitably be seen through the prism of concern at the level of European Union citizens immigration to the UK, the growing voter salience of immigration across the country and all pollsters and the rise of UKIP which – along with gay marriage – has used the issue as a catalyst to damn the political classes or ‘Westminster bubble’ (pace Carswell) and create space for its brand of incoherent ubiquitous populism and snake oil pieties.
Why has the Conservative Party allowed UKIP to appropriate – even own – this issue? It ought not to have worked out like this. In 2012, I brought forward a 10 Minute Rule Bill called the EU Free Movement Directive (Disapplication) Bill, which sought to nuance and finesse the Directive and toughen up areas like access to welfare benefits, healthcare and housing, criminal records checks, the administration of EU migrants documentation and looked to take the best practice of other EU countries like Spain and Germany which took a more robust approach to protecting their public services, national security and labour markets.
The Government resolutely ignored me save for a few cursory meetings and it was only the Eastleigh by-election 4 months later in early 2013 and the rise of UKIP, that disabused Downing Street and Ministers of the notion that they could wrap EU migration in a pretty box and hope the voters wouldn’t notice its impact if we (correctly) shouted a lot about our economic record.
The irony is that the Government does have a pretty good story to tell on non-EU migration (generally) given Labour’s poisonous legacy but the electors are not stupid and as Boris Johnson so astutely observed recently, it’s a sense of nonchalance and insouciance and let’s be blunt, impotence which irritates voters and drives them into Farage’s arms. They don’t want to be told there’s a problem (cue Nick Boles), they want to be told what’s the solution (not unreasonably).
Yes we’ve heard tough words from Iain Duncan Smith and Eric Pickles and Theresa May but voters are asking: ‘Do the Tories really mean it?’
Which brings us to this week’s completely needless media spat between Michael Fallon and No 10 Downing Street, which (whatever the latter say) involved Fallon being forced to clarify that he ‘misspoke’ by using the word ‘swamped’ to describe worries voters have about immigration. Needless because what would have passed off with some minor harrumping amongst Guardian readers and the perpetually-affronted institutional Liberal Left, became front page news as a result of No 10’s briefing and made our party look amateurish and inauthentic.
Michael Fallon was right, save he should have made the distinction in adding the word ‘some’ towns and cities to his comments.
We’re told – indeed it’s folklore – that Margaret Thatcher as the then Leader of the Opposition used a similar word in 1978 and at a stroke it destroyed the electoral pull of the then National Front by signalling that the Conservative Party was the decent and mainstream forum for good people to express concerns over widespread changes they saw in their community. Plus ça change.
However, few people know that in 1979, net migration was in the thousands and astonishingly in 1980-1982, net migration to the UK was minus 50,000 people! Yes – ‘swamped’ was considered an appropriate term for this situation.
And today? In 2013, 201,000 people arrived from the European Union alone, total immigration to our country was 526,000 people and net migration last year stood at 212,000, up 20 per cent on the previous year. And swamped is considered to be an inappropriate word to use by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bien pensant classes and Government spokesmen?
So why does it matter to me? I certainly have no antipathy to Eastern Europeans. I served as a Borough Councillor in Ealing for eight years, a borough with the highest proportion of Polish families in the UK, where the brave fliers from RAF Northolt settled after being demobbed on Ealing Common. They are wonderful people and the salt of the earth.
However, I am also a constituency MP for Peterborough. A city (of about 156,000 people in 2006) which saw the issue of 31,000 National Insurance numbers to migrants from Accession 8 countries between 2004 and 2013. A constituency where two primary schools have not a single pupil who speaks English as their first language, a local education authority where the number of school pupils without English as their first language has risen from 14 per cent to 38 per cent in 12 years. Where our acute hospital trust has a structural deficit of £40 million and we have nearly 3,000 people on our housing waiting lists and where whole neighbourhoods have been ghettoised by houses in multiple occupation to benefit rapacious slum landlords and millions are spent annually on translation and interpretation. On top of big rises in the Pakistani heritage community with bigger families and substantial organic housing development, the fact that we have maintained such good and strong community relations and the delivery of decent public services is nothing short of miraculous.
Immigration is now mainstream and it’s an issue that will have an impact at the General Election, even just at the margins – but that’s where it matters. David Cameron might just pull off a triumph which assuages the concerns of many swing voters and like Cleese in Clockwise, finish the saga with a warm hearted finale in time for the General Election.
A confrontation with the European Union regarding the Free Movement Directive is all but inevitable now. The Prime Minister must not just understand and empathise but he must act because if he doesn’t, he won’t be Prime Minister after May 8th 2015.
It’s that simple.
Stewart Jackson MP is Member of Parliament for Peterborough.