They think it’s all over

29 Apr 05
PHIL COLLINS | This general election campaign gets curiouser and curiouser. It is not, as the Sun> says, dull.

This general election campaign gets curiouser and curiouser. It is not, as the Sun> says, dull.

It is better than that. It is odd. The main oddity is the Conservative party campaign, in particular its obsessive, green-ink-brigade emphasis on immigration and asylum.

The first curiosity is that the pundits should have thought that this was fiendishly clever. Hasn’t the strategy of concentrating on the core Conservative vote been tested to destruction?

Anyone who paid attention to politics only at general elections would find the Tory campaign essentially unchanged from 2001. The policies on public services are much the same and there is a constant emphasis on a topic of marginal importance. In 2001, it was William Hague’s promise to save the pound (not needed, as it turned out). This time around, it is immigration and asylum.

The leader has changed and a periodic observer would not be surprised that both Michael Howard and William Hague had, at some point, led the Tory party. He or she would be astonished, though, that it was Hague first and then Howard, rather than the other way round.

And yet, for much of the campaign, the so-called ‘dog-whistle’ strategy was written up as though it were an amazing breakthrough. It may be that dog-whistle is the right comparison. These policies may, indeed, be audible only to dogs.

This is not to say that asylum and immigration are not important issues. There was an inflow of 151,000 people to the UK in 2003, three times as many as in 1997. More people have come to the UK since the turn of the millennium than in the 20 years prior to that.

This is largely explained by the number of economic migrants attracted by Britain’s prosperity. The best policy for reducing immigration would, therefore, be a sharp and deep recession.

This shows up the second curiosity in the Conservative emphasis on immigration. In the week that both parties unveil their business manifestos, the Tories seem unconcerned that they are jeopardising their relationship with business leaders by advocating a strict upper limit on the number of economic migrants.

Sir Digby Jones of the CBI suggested that this was not at all in the interests of the British economy. He came as close as any CBI leader ever has done to endorsing the Labour Party, which wants to establish a points system to allowed skilled workers to fill vacancies.

There are doubts about whether this, too, is the right policy, but the hostile reaction to the Tory proposals was a telling sign of the times.

There is, finally, a strategic curiosity. It is to the credit of the British people that you cannot win a general election here on immigration.

In the recent Mori polls, immigration and asylum has been cited as an important issue for 10% of the electorate. This is a good deal more than in previous general elections, and there is no law that says this must remain the case for ever.

But, for the moment, a wider appeal is needed because the British have always shown, in matters of race, what Michael Ignatieff has called ‘negative tolerance’. In other words, although there are plenty of people with privately racist views, these tend not to spill out very often into the public realm.

Gordon Brown is about to reprise his speech from last year on the theme of Britishness in which he will commend the British for their tradition of tolerance. While we ought not to compliment ourselves too smugly on this, the chancellor is closer to the truth than the leader of the Conservative party.

A lot has been made of the brutal intelligence of Lynton Crosby, a veteran of four electoral victories for John Howard in Australia. In the Australian general election last year Crosby and Howard stressed immigration heavily in their campaign.

It worked, but there is a crucial difference. In Australia, the federal government has no jurisdiction over public services so they do not feature very prominently in national election campaigns. Clearly, that is not the case in Britain, where you cannot win an election if you have nothing very much to say about schools and hospitals. More than 40% of people in this election say that education or health is the most important issue. This is not territory that anyone serious will ever vacate.

To talk almost exclusively about MRSA and school discipline is unbelievably narrow. It will not be enough. It seems that the Tory high command may be starting to recognise that.

Michael Howard has said the Tories are two-nil down at half time in the election but they could still come back. Last season, there were 214 occasions on which a team was winning two nil at half time. Only five of them lost.

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