Race to the bottom on immigration

As Ukip heads for victory in Rochester, immigration takes a regrettable place on every party’s agenda

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The Independent Online

Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said something sensible and true in her speech today when she warned that “we now have an arms race of rhetoric involving the Tories and Ukip over immigration” – although she might have added that Labour has been so spooked by the arms race that  it too has decided to join in.

Under the latest proposals coming out of the Shadow Cabinet, EU migrants would have had to be based in the UK for at least two years before qualifying for out-of-work benefits, instead of the current minimum period of three months. Labour is also proposing to restrict tax credits for EU migrants, in order to make it less worth their while to take on low-paid, short-term employment.

Another proposal that Labour has reiterated, and which most people would think reasonable, is to end the right of EU workers to claim child benefit here for children who are being brought up in their countries of origin.

In the backs of the minds of the political leaders as they compete to produce tough immigration policies is the strange by-election that takes place on Thursday in Rochester and Strood. The Conservatives fear they have lost that seat despite throwing everything into the campaign. Discarding the tradition that prime ministers do not campaign in by-elections, David Cameron made the journey to the Rochester constituency no fewer than five times. Every Tory MP was under pressure from the whips to match his enthusiasm. All that effort, it appears, might be in vain. Labour was barely in the contest from the start, despite having held this seat, under different boundaries, for 13 years until 2010.

Ukip’s expected victory owes next to nothing to the personality of the candidate, Mark Reckless, the sitting MP who has defected from the Conservatives. Douglas Carswell, who also switched parties, had a personal following in the Clacton seat he has held since 2005. When Mr Reckless defected, the Conservatives were convinced that he brought nothing to the party, and could be defeated. Every opinion poll taken in the constituency says they were wrong.

If it is not Mr Reckless’s personality that has caused a surge of support for Ukip in Rochester and Strood, then logically it should be the issues that Nigel Farage has made his party’s unique selling point – namely, immigration and withdrawal from the EU. This would stand to reason if local unemployment were high and there were a high number of immigrants competing for the scarce jobs.

Actually, unemployment in Rochester was never very high and has been steadily falling, from 4.5 per cent in May 2010, to 3.5 per cent a year ago, and 2.8 per cent by July this year.

Immigration was bound to feature in the by-election campaign, because it is what the candidates decided to fight about, but the proportion of people living in Rochester and Strood who were born outside the UK is below the national average. In major cities where immigrants outnumber native-born Britons there is very little sign of a Ukip surge.

This suggests that public discontent that focuses on immigration is actually about something more general – the feeling that the main political parties are barely distinguishable from one another and that their leaders inhabit a different reality from most of the population. That is a problem which the attempts by both Conservative and Labour politicians to, in a sense, out-Ukip each other does nothing to address.