Roll up! Roll-up! It’s the all-party immigration game show

They’re going thataway: David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration at the University of Suffolk, March 2013. Paul Rogers/The Times/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Foundation essay: Welcome to the first in a series of articles marking the launch of The Conversation in the UK. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society. Here Paul Statham tackles the thorny matter of immigration

Vince Cable was right yesterday when he warned that the current “panic” over immigration was in danger of harming the country.

But the business secretary’s message is unlikely to get across when the current political debate focuses on the quantity rather than the quality of immigrants. The release of government figures indicating falling immigration to the UK is taken by politicians and media alike to suggest a country gaining control over its borders and asserting national sovereignty over the right to do so. This is the political message that David Cameron needs to peddle at this time.

But the hardest-hit sector is people seeking visas for tuition in British further education institutions and language schools. These dropped by almost half. So we control immigration by shooting our own education sector – a truly world-leading and vital business - in the foot.

Why? British masochism? No, just British politics.

Immigration will be a key battleground for party competition in all forthcoming elections. Nigel Farage’s UKIP is flavour of the month. The voting public propelled UKIP into the faces of the mainstream parties in recent local elections.

The media has a new darling in the slightly anarchic and eccentric Farage. The current dull-as-ditchwater British politics scene, populated by monochrome identikit robots for party leaders, who trade in empty media stunts and soundbites to say basically the same thing, has made Farage look interesting.

In spring 2013, UKIP has a fortuitous moment to link the bête noire of the British psyche – our post-war relationship to continental Europe – to immigration. The imminent EU-wide lifting of restrictions on the movement of Romanians and Bulgarians, our fellow EU citizens, allows UKIP to add a broad-brush anti-immigration stance to its EU hostility.

Unlike the BNP’s failed attempts down the years to re-brand itself as “post-racist”, UKIP’s hostility to the possible presence of (eastern) Europeans is able to draw on British Anti-EU-ism.

Opportunist: UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Chris Ison/PA Wire

Importantly for UKIP, this anti-immigration stance is able to appeal to a broader range of British voters than just BNP supporters. This is because it does not deny recognition of colonial guilt for the evils of slavery; nor does it deny the evils of fascism or Nazi death camps, from which the British patriotically see themselves as liberating the rest of Europe.

In short, UKIP offers voters an almost stigma-free opportunity to oppose immigration. But, while we know that Brits favour the EU less than any other European citizens, is there really a case to be against east-European immigration?

Factually, the general answer is “no”. The large influx of Poles made a significant contribution to Britain’s booming economy in the mid-2000s. Against popular myths, only a handful claimed benefits and many returned home – hence there was a clear net economic benefit, even if the social costs and benefits were not evenly distributed round the country.

Pre-2008, ‘globalisation’ ruled

The real problem with the Polish immigration story was “political”: it was a success story that dared not speak its name. Britain under New Labour was one of three EU governments that placed no limits on the entry of Poles after accession. However New Labour never made an effort to publicly declare what was effectively (and entirely plausibly) a policy for economic immigration. This is surprising in that New Labour was seldom reticent in declaring its intent and willingness to act, even in the face of public opposition (remember Iraq?).

Also, New Labour was the ideology of globalisation par excellence. Inspired by world-leading sociologist Tony Giddens, it sought a “third way” by buying into the perceived economic benefits of globalisation while hoping for a significant trickle-down for the rest of society that would result in a “win-win” situation. Electorally, Tony Blair presided over three solid victories, while the Tories looked on enviously.

The global economic crisis starting in 2008 changed the landscape: globalisation suddenly seemed like the cause of problems rather than the solution. Before 2008, globalisation seemed to offer free-market driven prosperity, cosmopolitanism and social justice (or so New Labour claimed).

After 2008 it was clear that new divides were appearing between the “winners” of globalisation - the new transnational cosmopolitan elites whose aspirations knew no financial limits nor geographical borders - and the “losers” - the sectors of society unable to adapt to join the party, especially the working classes in regions already dealt a knock-out blow by de-industrialisation.

Across Western Europe, parties have emerged calling for a reinforcement of national political sovereignty, autonomy and cultural identity in the face of globalisation. Most appeal to the “losers” on a nationalist and anti-EU, anti-immigration ticket. UKIP is the English variant. Mainstream parties try to steal their clothes.

Post-2008 and a return to little Britain

Politically, immigration has taken a hit from the fall from grace of globalisation. At the last general election, the Conservatives committed themselves to a “reducing numbers” game - hence the trumpeting of last week’s numerical reduction. Nonetheless, that stance has caused them endless problems in government, not least because in a global, interconnected and free-market world it is hard for states to act autonomously and close borders.

Witness David Cameron’s difficulty in explaining to the Indian government (now not an old colony, but a developing economic power) why Indian students face high entry barriers to gain access to the UK for the privilege of paying to educate themselves in Britain - a policy that is difficult to square with free market principles of global trade advocated internationally by the British government.

Meanwhile, New Labour is no more. Labour under Ed Miliband has decided it is “Blue” not “New”. Whereas Blair had adopted the titan Giddens, Miliband has chosen a relative intellectual midget, the soon-enobled Maurice Glasman. Glasman, an academic with a poor publication record but leading light in London’s citizens group, came up with an eclectic mish-mash, basically declaring that Labour had neglected the white working class who (and here it gets rather patronising) could be bought back by appeals to nationalism, strong traditional (read “white”) communities and a hint of anti-immigrant politics.

By apeing the Conservatives, Labour effectively dumped a stance that tried to ride the tidal wave of structural changes carried by globalisation for a kind of shallow nostalgia for British communities and values. “Blue Labour” lacks intellectual depth and a willingness to address the structural changes facing society, including immigration and its social consequences, preferring instead a clichéd rhetoric about communities.

Into this void of meaningful or factually-based debate has stepped UKIP. The laws of political competition now dictate that the Conservatives and Labour will fall over themselves to fill what they see as the UKIP appeal.

Somewhere in Europe there is a small island with an ageing population and declining workforce that its birth rate will not sustain. The rational solution would be to allow a controlled flow of economic immigrants on a selective basis to replenish the labour supply – something commonplace across the Atlantic. However, the pathology of British democratic politics dictates that this will not happen, not least because we lack a collective political imagination that can convincingly link the benefits of globalisation to the national commonweal.

New Labour at least had the ideological tools to do this. What it lacked was the will to get the message across on economic immigration, when it had the chance to do so. Time to send in the clowns.