The Immigration Dilemma

by Alex Massie

Now that the opinion polls are pointing - for the time being at least - towards a hung parliament, there's much chuntering in Tory circles. Broadly speaking, the argument is between the modernisers and the traditionalists. Labour's core argument is that despite David Cameron's eco-friendly makeover, the Tories really haven't changed. Tory traditionalists fret that Labour couldn't be more wrong.

In some ways it's reminiscent of a line the Tories used themselves back when Tony Blair was remodelling the Labour party. Don't believe it, said the Conservatives, just you wait and see and watch for the return of Bad, Old Labour. However there really was such a thing as New Labour, even if it now seems to belong to a long-gone era. Similarly, the Cameroons really do view themselves as a new kind of Conservative party. The election campaign will be a test of their nerve. Do they have the courage of their convictions?

There are plenty of influential voices calling for a toughter line. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, and Tim Montgomerie have both called for the party to make immigration* a major issue in the campaign. It's true that it's an issue raised "on the doorstep" but that doesn't mean that talking about immigration is a vote-winner.

Back in 2005 there was a curious phenomenon: voters agreed with the general thrust of Tory policies on immigration or europe only to repudiate those policies once pollsters told them that they were also held by the Conservative party. Just being associated with the Conservatives made popular ideas unpopular.

That was the level of contamination David Cameron had to deal with when he became leader. There is a grave risk that tacking to the right and endorsing a populist, "robust" approach to immigration could have similar consequences again. And for all that it might help secure what Americans might call "Beer Track" votes it risks alienating "Wine Track" voters. Not necessarily because they disagree with the idea of more strictly controlling immigration but because they dislike being associated with the kind of party that harps on about immigration all the time.

Similarly, the Tories will not want to make Europe too great an issue. Yes, there's probably a euro-sceptic majority in the country, but many voters are turned off by the stridency of anti-Brussels rhetoric. They don't much care for Brussels themselves, but they're not keen on voting for a party that seems obsessed by the subject.

These then are issues that stir plenty of people up and the make a lot of noise (as the comment sections of many a blog testify) but they're not necessarily issues that win elections.

So there's a balance to be struck. Have the Tories wobbled because they've not changed enough or because they've not been Tory enough? The base - that is the 30% of the electorate who have stuck with the party these past dozen years - suspect the latter; the additional voters the party needs to reach the magic 40% mark may suspect the former.

My own view, hesitantly reached, is that it's too late for the party to retreat to the comfort of the same old tunes. It's "modernisation" or bust and, actually, I think Labour would love it if the Conservatives reverted to type. Doing so would make a mockery of Project Dave.

*Admittedly, my views on immigration - see here and here -  are such that I'd be on the libertarian-right in the United States. This makes me an extremist in Britain. So I'm hardly in the mainstream on this and, consequently, could be wholly, massively, spectacularly wrong.

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