After the three main prime ministerial contenders clashed over economic and other issues in the third and final TV debate last night, Tory leader David Cameron came under fire for his immigration remarks.
In a discussion about migrant workers, Mr Cameron claimed that 1.2 million “illegal immigrants” would demand “access to welfare and access to council housing” under Liberal Democrat policies.
But this morning migration justice campaigners said that the number came “from nowhere” and was designed to win votes by creating fear. The Labour pressure group Compass accused the Tory leader of “dog-whistle politics” on the issue.
The derivation of the statistic remains unspecified. It appears that Mr Cameron doubled the estimate of 600,000 long-term unregistered migrants – itself an estimate covering arrivals over ten years – by assuming that unspecified relatives would somehow be arriving imminently.
Warming to his anti-immigration theme, Cameron also declared: “Immigration in this country has been too high for too long and that’s why we have a very clear approach to cut it and cut it quite substantially.” He claimed he would reduce net inward migration “from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands”.
Net migration – the number of people who come to live in Britain minus the number who move abroad – fell by more than a third in 2008, the latest year for which official statistics are available. This was its lowest level since Poland joined the European Union.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Gordon Brown also declared: “When it comes to immigration I want to see a situation where we increase the number of jobs that people in Britain can take, as we lower the number of people coming into the country.”
The Tory leader attacked the Liberal Democrats for seeking to create an “earned route” to citizenship for unregistered migrants who have been in the UK for 10 years, attacking it as an “amnesty”.
Mr Clegg defended the policy, and pointed out that “only” London Tory Mayor Boris Johnson had called for an amnesty outright – although this is in fact something strongly backed by church leaders and a range of businesspeople.
He too, disavowed the term amnesty, and none of the three spelled out the positive case for migration put forward by the likes of the Economist, the Institute for Public Policy Research and others, instead treating the issue as a problem and a threat.
Mr Clegg did strike a different tone, however, when he said there was a big problem with people who had been in the country for years and were settled and working but could not join mainstream life, arguing strongly that this would be dealt with by a one-off normalisation programme.
The Lib Dem leader also pointed out that citizens of existing European Union countries have the legal right to enter Britain and work here, rendering Mr Cameron’s promise of a dramatic cut meaningless.
He challenged the Conservative leader: “Can you now tell me, am I right or wrong that 80 per cent of people who come here come from the European Union?”
Mr Cameron declined to answer, but this morning his party, the anti-immigration lobby group Migration Watch and the Telegraph, Mail and Express newspapers tried to claim that Mr Clegg was “wrong” by quoting 2008 Office of National Statistics data that includes students and not just workers.
On the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme this morning, Lib Dem treasury spokesperson Vincent Cable also attacked the Tory leader’s 1.2 million figure as unsubstantiated, and added: "[he] is planning a cap on the number of workers, he is not proposing to control the number of dependent immigrants, or students or asylum seekers.”
Simon Barrow, co-director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia commented: “The party leaders’ exchange on immigration was a depressing example of the way in which mainstream politicians and much of the media are hyping fears and problems associated with migration – while bypassing the real global challenges, ignoring the human beings involved, and competing with each other in their negative stereotypes. Even the word ‘amnesty’ is now being used pejoratively.”
He continued: “Migration in and out of Britain has produced huge benefits. We now live in an irreversibly mixed society, and that is exciting as well as challenging. It is something we have to face together, rather than dividing people in terms of ethnicity, and whether they are settled or moving. The genuine problems we need to address are the forces – like war, climate change, human rights abuses, huge inequalities, poverty and joblessness – which force some people to move in chaotic and unmanageable ways. Barriers and barbed wire have no answer to this.”
“Special support needs to be given to communities where population transition is putting resources and people under pressure. But anti-immigrant sentiment, hostility rather than hospitality, and the relentless pursuit of ineffective get-tough policies which cause human suffering resolve nothing. They are hopelessly short-sighted,” concluded Barrow. “The current ‘immigration debate’ is broken and on the wrong tracks.”
The leaders’ economic debate, which critics like the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and Plaid Cymru spokesperson Eurfyl ap Gwilym say was formulaic and evasive on crunch questions, saw Labour’s Gordon Brown warning that a Tory and Lib Dem coalition would put economic recovery “at risk”.
The Conservative leader, David Cameron, responded that Brown was trying to "scare" voters and said the Tories could deliver the "change we need", while the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg called on voters to "choose the future you really want".
The three discussed tax, public sector cuts, bankers' bonuses, UK manufacturing, unemployment, the shortage of housing and opportunities for young people from deprived backgrounds. They ignored environmental concerns and global regulation and taxation issues.
A snap poll by YouGov after the debate, carried out for the Sun, newspaper found that 41 per cent of 1,151 viewers questioned thought Mr Cameron had won the debate, against 32 per cent for Mr Clegg and 25 per cent for Mr Brown – who fared much better among ‘political geeks’.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron was well ahead in a Guardian/ICM poll of 510 viewers on 35 per cent, against Brown on 29 per cent and Clegg on 27 per cent – though with a wider margin of error.
By contrast, a ComRes survey of 2,372 viewers found the contest closer, with Cameron just two points ahead of Clegg on 35 per cent to the Lib Dem leader's 33 per cent, with 26 per cent for Brown.
Also on Ekklesia:
* Why the 'immigration debate' is so misleading - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/12015 
* Brown-Duffy spat is normalising prejudice against immigrants - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/12016 
* Stop blaming immigrants for racism and the BNP - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11895