Britain's poll issue

Britain's poll issue

The British politics is in a flux and the two main political parties – the Conservatives and the Labour – are struggling to respond to one of the most significant challenges they face in the May 2015 elections – immigration.

In a recent speech, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has asked other European Union (EU) member-states to support his “reasonable” proposals for far-reaching curbs on welfare benefits for migrants. He said lower EU migration would be a priority in future negotiations over the UK’s membership and he would “rule nothing out” if he did not get the changes he wanted. Under the new Cameron plans, migrants will have to wait for four years for certain benefits.

Cameron wants no EU worker to be able to claim tax credits, social or council housing until they have lived and worked in the UK for four years. What’s more, no child benefit or credit should be sent to children living abroad. This is a tougher version of an approach already laid out by the Labour and the Liberal Democrats. At the moment, EU citizens are free to come to the UK and compete for jobs without being subject to any immigration controls. Those from outside the EU face much tighter controls if they wish to enter the country.

In his speech which was widely anticipated, Cameron is making a case that he could change the basis of EU migration into the UK and therefore, campaign for the UK to stay in the EU in a future referendum planned for 2017.

The EU has merely responded that the ideas were “part of the debate” to be “calmly considered.” But this was also David Cameron’s way of launching a fight-back against the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a party he accused of attempting to “foment division” and of pandering to prejudice over immigration. The PM was trying to be simultaneously radical and realistic. Bold enough to prove he gets what many see as a problem, believable enough to ensure he achieves what he sees as a solution. And sure enough he didn’t succeed.

But his critics have not been assuaged. Cameron disappointed right-wing Tories who have been pressing for a cap on numbers of EU migrants admitted to the UK.  Instead, he merely wants to negotiate new rules on freedom of movement within the Union. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, himself struggling on the issue, said David Cameron has absolutely no credibility on immigration. He said that the PM had said “No ifs, no buts, we will get net migration down and it's gone up.He actually said ‘kick us out in five years if we don’t deliver.”

The larger context of Cameron’s speech is shaped by the changing demographic and political realities. Despite his party’s promise to reduce the numbers, 2,60,000 more people arrived in the UK in the year to June than left. And the more immediate challenge has been framed by the dramatic rise of UK Independence Party in British politics. The UKIP has, as its name implies, one key policy – to leave the European Union. It is a simple, understandable message, which has led to the party gaining bigger and bigger support in European elections, culminating in it topping the vote in May, this year.

The UKIP win
Since then, UKIP has two elected members to the Parliament – two MPs who can stand up and make life awkward in the Commons for the bigger parties, two MPs who are assuring the British public that a party like UKIP can win elections to the Commons. Most recently, UKIP won a byelection which was highly impressive. The ease with which the UKIP demolished a 9,000 Tory majority was striking and this after the Conservatives had strained every sinew to halt the UKIP bandwagon.

The UKIP is now insisting that no Tory seat is safe and has suggested other Conservative MPs are more likely to defect. The party’s campaigning effort has become far more professional and well-funded in the past three years as a result. It is learning the highly specialised discipline, once the domain of the Liberal Democrats, of winning elections. After it won May’s European elections, UKIP said it would seriously target up to 20 seats but this could now be increased after the recent byelection triumphs.

But, for the Tories, the result was not perhaps, the meltdown they had feared and certainly there is no indication so far of panic or calls for Cameron to go. It is believed that they are poised to win back this seat at the general election. The other two main political parties are also feeling the heat. Labour Party under Miliband saw their share of the vote almost halved in recent byelections and it is also seen as out of the mainstream.  As for the Liberal Democrats, the other party in the ruling coalition, they are getting decimated. In the recent byelections, they secured a derisory 349 votes – their lowest total ever.

British politics is struggling to come to terms with the growing disenchantment with the political establishment’s handling of immigration and it is likely to have great consequences for the country as well as for its relationship with the EU.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College, London)

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