The Tories plan a systematic stream of populist measures on migration and welfare benefits in the run up to the election, and there appears to be no opposition.
According to the Daily Mail, last month, the Conservative Party’s election strategist Lynton Crosby suggested the party begin producing ‘a new policy to curb immigrants and benefits’ every week. With a general election looming next year, the man dubbed by Boris Johnson as the ‘Wizard of Oz’ wants to ensure that voters are not distracted from four core election themes of the economy, crime, immigration and welfare. It is the latter two which have clearly been pushed to the forefront. The cynical plan, which no doubt plays to the proclivities of the rightwing press, is already bearing its rotten fruit.
As Crosby’s strategy was made public, the prime minister stated that he wanted to debar from benefits anyone who cannot speak English. A few days later, he said that he was looking into ways of ensuring that nationals of poorer European Union countries would have their freedom of movement curtailed as compared with those from richer ones, stating: ‘I think when new countries join the European Union we should be able to consider, and we would be able to consider, longer transitional periods and we should also be asking the question: is it right to take transitional controls off until those countries reach a level of income per capita which is closer to the rest of Europe.’ Within days, again, the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith delivered a speech to the Centre for Social Justice arguing that an over-generous welfare state had destroyed aspiration and led to an increase in migration, crime and spending on health care. Wary that his party might be coming across as callous, he likened his government’s savaging of the welfare system to the fight against slavery. Eroding welfare, he suggested, would help people break ‘free’ from the clutches of the state, continuing the Conservatives’ ‘historic mission’ embodied by the William Wilberforces of the country. It was a claim that managed to combine gross insult with irony, given that concerns that his party’s workfare policies amounted to ‘forced or compulsory labour’ led last year to a legal challenge (ultimately unsuccessful).
In any case, the work and pensions secretary was somewhat off-script. For the Tories have made a conscious decision to attack the poor, the ill and the vulnerable in conjunction with the UK’s migrant communities – a line reinforced by and feeding off their vilification by the rightwing press.
On one level, of course, this relationship is nothing new. From an insidious ‘strivers vs shirkers’ barrage to vans telling immigrants to ‘go home’ (another of the Wizard’s ideas, apparently), the demonisation of immigrants and welfare recipients has been integral to the government’s term in office from the start – and predates it. But now there is no attempt to filter or nuance the apparent disdain for entire swathes of humanity – and depressingly, the opposition appears to be following in these footsteps. (See an IRR News story: ‘Immigration Bill passes through Commons‘.) Early last year, the prime minister was reportedly advised by Crosby to ‘get the barnacles off the boat’, jettisoning reference to any more liberal messages that would distract from central policy aims.
Facts made redundant
As the Tories hammer home (through the press) the measures that it is going to put in place, facts become less and less important. A few months ago, the editor of the Daily Express led a delegation (which included Conservative MPs) to 10 Downing Street to hand in 150,000 signed copies of a petition simply called ‘Say NO to EU migrants’. The petition, part of a self-styled ‘crusade’ by the paper, warned of a ‘new major migration from Romania and Bulgaria’; and after the transitional controls for nationals of these two countries were lifted on 1 January 2014, some seventy Conservative MPs led a backbench rebellion demanding their reintroduction. (They outnumbered the ‘major migration’ – the twenty-one Romanians and fifteen Bulgarians who had by that point arrived in the UK – by a factor of about two-to-one.)
By this point, the government and the tabloids had already manufactured a mass panic over ‘benefit tourism’, culminating in a radical raft of measures including announcements by the prime minister that housing benefit for EU jobseekers would from now on be stopped, and that those removed from the UK for ‘not working or being self-sufficient’ would face a twelve-month re-entry ban. When pressed to produce evidence on the scale of benefit tourism, the government admitted that there was none. There are, of course, the ‘600,000 benefit tourists’ that the Sun warned its readers about, not too long before running a front page with a red line superimposed next to a map of the UK with the headline ‘Brits tell Cameron: draw a red line on immigration or else’, but then again, the paper admitted that this number was fabricated.
The reality is that as campaigns – or ‘crusades’ – about immigration and welfare intensify, so too does a concurrent intensification of hostility towards the truth. Only a few weeks ago, for example, the prime minister shelved a government report as it failed to produce any evidence supporting its claims of ‘abuse’ of EU free movement. Soon after, the government dismissed a report by a United Nations special rapporteur which called for the suspension of the ‘bedroom tax’ since it ‘impacts on the right to adequate housing’, as a discredited and misleading ‘Marxist diatribe’. When facts do not justify policies and public support for them, they are simply disregarded and/or disowned. As the relationship between the Tories and the media becomes increasingly symbiotic, we see reason replaced by ideology.
Read an IRR News story: ‘Immigration Bill passes through Commons‘
Read an IRR News story: ‘Lies, damned lies and racism‘