Let’s be honest, just for a moment. The Rochester and Strood by-election has been a disgrace. It has been a sewer race during which the two leading protagonists have done their best to demonstrate their lack of fitness for office. In this, if nothing else, they have been successful.
I wouldn’t expect anything better from Mark Reckless and Ukip. We know who they are; the type of people they are. So it’s no great surprise that Reckless is happy to allow people to think Ukip’s revolution will lead to the repatriation of immigrants. As usual, Ukip are living down to expectations.
But so, alas, are the Conservatives. Their own candidate, Kelly Tolhurst, is just as repellent as Mr Reckless. She appears to be running a campaign based on the interesting proposition that, gosh, Ukip are right, don’t vote for them. Consider these extracts from her own election leaflets:
“I wanted to bring the prime minister to this constituency to show him that uncontrolled immigration has hurt this area. I told him we need action, not just talk.”
“Most people I know here have worked hard their lives, played by the rules and paid their fair share, but we sometimes struggle to access the services we need because of uncontrolled immigration. Others don’t feel safe walking down the high street of our town.
I suppose this is just another example of no-one ever being allowed to talk about immigration. I don’t know if it counts as progress that we’ve moved on from Oh My God, Muslims! to Oh My God, Roman Catholics from Eastern Europe! but there you have it.
Of course it’s not necessarily racist to be concerned by immigration, it’s just that all racists are concerned by these matters. Worse, the dreaded mainstream parties are pandering to the lowest common denominator they can possibly find. This, not anything else, is the real race to the bottom in British politics today.
But let’s suppose that concerns about local services really are all that drives this stuff. If so then it really doesn’t matter whether someone arrives in Rochester from Glasgow or Gdansk. The pressure on local services is just the same. The problem – if there is one – comes from people and that problem exists independently of where those people happen to have come from.
The logic of the Ukip position – shared, increasingly alas, by the Tories and Labour – is that internal migration should also be stopped or capped or whatever nonsense proposition happens to be the flavour of the month.
At least that would be the case if concerns about pressure on local services is what really motivates opposition to migration. Perhaps, on the other hand, this isn’t what actually generates all this hostility. Perhaps – just perhaps! – there’s another factor that helps explain it all. I wonder what that might be.
The worst of it is that I don’t believe either the Conservative or Labour leaderships really believe in all the crap they’re spouting on immigration. I think they appreciate that immigration has not just been good for Britain but also necessary. I think they realise that Britain’s openness is a virtue not a vice and immigration is proof of success, not failure. But they won’t come out and say so. Instead they peddle nonsensical ideas they cannot deliver and in which they do not really even believe and then wonder why voters react badly when those policies cannot actually be implemented and a great chasm opens between what politicians say they will do and what they do actually do. It’s a kind of self-harming exercise and, in the end, a form of political malpractice.
Stupid too. As Iain Martin observed on twitter this morning a couple of million non-British born folk have become citizens of this realm in the last 15 years. These people vote too. So do their British-born spouses and their British-born friends. At some point some political party may just want to remember that someone should speak for these people.
The Tories, of course, wonder why they struggle to win the support of ethnic minority voters. Why, look, many of them are social conservatives! And many of them run small businesses too! They should be natural Conservatives! Our kind of people. But these voters won’t vote for a party they suspect thinks their presence in this country some kind of regrettable development that, if we could do it all again, should have been prevented. It’s a question of tone but more than that it’s a question of belonging. And, yes, of being comfortable with modern Britain.
In any case, the myth of the Polish benefit-moocher is just that: a myth. Perhaps our leading politicians should say so. Perhaps they should make a case for modern Britain rather than spend so much time hinting that modern Britain is a ghastly place of which everyone should properly be ashamed.
Not everyone will agree. That’s fine. But better to be a politician who stands for something than one who trims to pander to the baser elements of society. A politician with the courage of their convictions will win more respect – and perhaps even more votes – than one who lacks that courage. And whatever else one might say about Ukip – and there’s plenty that can be said – their success is based, at least in part, on their willingness to say what they believe, however ugly and pessimistic that may be. There is a lesson there, too.