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On the day of the Eastleigh by-election, figures were released which showed a marked recent decline in net migration, which obviously delighted the Government. Home Secretary Theresa May boasted about how much she had toughened up the rules, but perhaps in an attempt to forestall one potential criticism, stressed the fact that visas for university students had increased by three percent overall.
What the Government did not did not highlight were these details from the quarterly figures: ‘Falls of 62 per cent, 69 per cent and 14 per cent for further education, English language schools and independent schools, respectively’. This has left many such schools and colleges bemoaning the loss of a valuable income stream and talented students.
In the Eastleigh by-election, the Conservative Party was obviously claiming success for their immigration policy in a last-minute attempt to win voters back from UKIP. A poll by Lord Ashcroft in 2012 showed that among people considering voting UKIP, ‘controlling immigration’ was a higher priority for them than the deficit, the NHS, or even Europe.
Given the result at Eastleigh, where UKIP finished ahead of the Conservatives, there is likely to be further political pressure to stress “concerns about immigration”, leading to another unseemly dash towards more restrictive policies. But what of the impact of the Coalition’s other policies?
The UK has high unemployment (which many believe is higher than official figures suggest, not least because of under-employment) and falling living standards. Policies that drive down wages and conditions, such as workfare and tough benefit sanctions, are supposed to incentivise work, but in reality are making work less and less rewarding, and life on benefits even more desperate.
With politicians seeking to blame-shift, it is understandable that people at the sharp end who are struggling will look for an explanation for why their life is so hard and respond to these suggestions. When people feel they have to fight for even a tiny share of what they are constantly told, simplistically, is a shrinking pie, migrants who seem prepared (or are forced) to work hard for very low wages are easy to blame – rather than a crisis in the jobs market exacerbated by austerity policies, recessionary economic trends, huge income gaps, and government retrenchment.
Add to this a shortage of affordable housing, cuts in local services, and an openly xenophobic press, and it is hardly surprising that some people are tempted to see newcomers moving into their area as competitors to be repelled, rather than neighbours enduring the same harsh conditions.
There are policies which would address these issues, and they should naturally be Labour territory, but the Opposition has been far too timid in suggesting any such alternatives. Policies that would be good for everybody, like an end to workfare, strict enforcement of the minimum wage, implementation of a living wage, building more social housing, and investing in local services and economic development, would take the pressure off the most disadvantaged and reduce the risk of resentment being directed towards migrants.
In the absence of a positive alternative, however, we remain in danger that the race to the bottom in wages and welfare may be accompanied by a further race to the right among politicians.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor.Tweet