The invasion of Iraq and everything that followed caused grave difficulties for the government. But at least it created a sense of purpose and perpetuated the illusion that Tony Blair is a strong Prime Minister. The primacy of domestic issues over the last few weeks has reminded us how vacant New Labour really is. Politics has suddenly lurched back three or four years to the era of government by gimmick, the cringe-making early Blair period when Downing Street was dominated by a frenzied desire to create newspaper headlines.
Contemplate last week. The Prime Minister launched his plan for random drug-testing in schools on Sunday. By Monday his scheme was in trouble and by Tuesday it was halfway to collapse. Over at the Treasury Gordon Brown was not to be outdone. A flurry of newspaper stories about obesity met the Chancellor’s eye. A tax on obesity was invented, floated, proposed and junked, all within the space of a 20-hour news cycle.
The most interesting front-bench convulsions have been on immigration, where Downing Street exercises no steadying influence or sense of command — a state of affairs which enables writers of newspaper headlines to determine government policy. This week’s crisis has been germinating for years. There is a grotesque inequality of wage rates between Britain and the central European countries which join the European Union in the spring. This is certain to lead to economic migration when borders open. The Conservative party pointed this out when the accession treaty was ratified, and proposed interim protections which were airily dismissed by government ministers.
Three weeks ago Michael Howard raised the issue again at Prime Minister’s Questions. It emerged that Tony Blair had finally woken up to the problem. Three weeks of chaos followed. Ministers and government spokesmen contradicted one another in public while the Cabinet rowed in private. By Monday the Home Secretary had formulated his compromise, which allows migrants to come here for work but with restricted rights to benefits. This Blunkett plan is not merely unworkable but probably illegal.
That is where matters now stand. The government’s problem is that it has no sense of what it believes in, what it wants to achieve, and where it wants to end up. It suffers simultaneously from atrophy of intellect and failure of nerve. The reason for this paralysis is illuminating. Immigration is a matter which goes right to the heart of the New Labour paradox. Tony Blair has always sought to rule through what Professor David Marquand, principal of Mansfield College Oxford, has happily christened manipulative populism. At the top is a tiny metropolitan elite seeking to govern for its own reasons, most of which it urgently needs to keep hidden from the electorate. But in order to hold on to power this elite feels that it has no choice but to enter into a lowering compromise with the populist press, which can deliver votes. On some issues — the invasion of Iraq is an excellent example — the interests of the fastidious New Labour governing elite and this jingoistic press coincide. On other issues — Europe and above all immigration — they disastrously clash.
For the first five years of New Labour government, No. 10 strategists solved this contradiction through a cynical version of Clintonian triangulation. When political opponents expressed alarm about mass immigration, they were denounced as extremist. William Hague, for instance, was demonised as a far-right fanatic before the last election, when he identified asylum as an issue which galvanised voters. Marginalising Hague created space for certain New Labour ministers, above all David Blunkett, to play — within certain approved limits — the populist card. This method worked well, mainly because the British political establishment — the BBC to a fanatical extent — was happy to join the conspiracy to ensure that liberal views should monopolise public discourse on race and immigration.
This strategy now looks very tired. Last week, when Michael Howard went to Burnley to make his thoughtful speech on immigration, he was viciously attacked by New Labour for stirring up racial hatred. The attack didn’t stick. The ground has started to shift. An early sign of change was the long agenda-setting essay in last month’s Prospect magazine by David Goodhart. Its interest lay in the way it addressed the problem of immigration from the perspective of the centre-Left rather than the deracinated Right. Goodhart’s crucial insight is that mass immigration threatens the Labour party’s greatest achievement: the apparatus of the welfare state and National Health Service set up by the Attlee government in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. He argues that citizens are happy to pay high taxes for altruistic reasons only if there is a strong sense of social solidarity. To put the issue in more human terms, the ordinary taxpayer is ready to cough up for a system that ensures that Doris down the road can have her hip operation, but does not want to pay for the central African HIV crisis.
Goodhart’s essay contains a second insight: mass immigration benefits the better-off. It poses no threat to the affluent. Their housing needs are already sorted, and they can opt out to the private sector for their health, education and transport needs when public services come under too much strain. Their private help — cleaners, au pairs, plumbers, etc. — becomes even cheaper. It is perhaps no coincidence that the section of the liberal elite most opposed to immigration controls — Mr Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality, who last week denounced poor David Goodhart as a ‘xenophobe’ and a ‘Powellite’, is a vocal example — falls into this category. The rich metropolitan middle class can not only ease its conscience by taking a luxuriously orthodox view on immigration; it has a clear economic interest in doing so as well.
Unfettered immigration, on the other hand, represents an immediate and alarming threat to the lower-middle and working classes. They are stuck with the public services, unable to buy their way out. It is their children who get knocked off the council-house list, and their relations whose hip operations get delayed. Just as bad, they are likely to find a hungry Pole or Slovakian in competition for their dismal and poorly paid jobs.
This is, of course, exactly the reason why big business and its agents of opinion — the CBI and the chambers of commerce, the Financial Times and the Economist — are without exception supporters of mass migration. The economic benefits — i.e. cheap labour — are obvious. The victims are small, less articulate people, readily misrepresented. Over the last six years this class has been disenfranchised, though newspapers like the Daily Express deserve some credit for expressing the concerns of their readers. The resulting democratic deficit is dangerous. If mainstream political parties will not delve into these deep waters, there are plenty of genuinely racist political parties which are only too delighted to do so.