Immigration as a vote-winner?

Published by The Independent (16th March, 2015)

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh grew up in a Conservative family. Her father was the first Asian councillor elected in Scotland and as a child she used to deliver leaflets for the Tories. She joined the party at the age of 16, ran a branch of its youth wing in Edinburgh and wore a blue rosette when standing as a candidate for the Scottish parliament – defeated by a young solicitor named Nicola Sturgeon.

Today these two articulate female lawyers are on the same side. Sturgeon, now leader of the Scottish National Party, is her nation’s first minister. And Ahmed-Sheikh has been picked to fight Ochil and South Perthshire, the party’s most winnable seat, at the looming general election. For this Muslim mother of four children, once described as the new face of Scottish Conservatives, defected more than a decade ago in dismay at tough Tory tactics on asylum and immigration.

Ahmed-Sheikh symbolises seismic changes taking place in British politics. If the polls prove prescient, she will sweep into Westminster alongside more than 50 other SNP candidates in May, devastating Labour hopes of victory and demonstrating the skill with which her new party has handled the loss of the independence referendum. Yet she also highlights something else profound that needs to be grasped by floundering mainstream parties: the potential strength of a positive message on immigration.

The SNP is riding to success and shaking-up politics with pledges to boost immigration. ‘We will welcome people who want to come to work and live in Scotland,’ proclaimed the independence white paper last year. They favour incentives for migrants to move to remote areas, removing recent restrictions on overseas students staying on to work and ending the edict that people married to Britons must earn high salaries to move here. Perhaps most importantly, they view immigrants as a vital part of Scotland’s ‘tartan tapestry’ of faiths and cultures while remaining fiercely committed to multiculturalism.

What a contrast to south of the border, where the rise of Ukip panicked mainstream parties and sent them flailing around for ways to counter its misanthropic hostility to migration. So they toughened language and tightened policies for fear of looking soft. The conventional view at Westminster is that parties must respond to public anger on this core issue, despite mountains of evidence showing how beneficial new arrivals have been to Britain.

Yet the SNP’s stance on immigration is a key part of its optimistic and inclusive outlook that is proving so popular, especially with younger voters desiring political change. At a time when conventional politics is supposedly in decline, the party’s membership has risen almost fourfold since the referendum six months ago to almost 100,000 people. This may prove a bubble but it is still astonishing – equivalent to the mass memberships not seen in England since the 1950s – and shows the enduring power of politics to inflame passion.

Such open attitudes are unusual for a nationalist party, reflecting a tone on immigration noticeably different north of the border among all mainstream parties. Yes, this is partly driven by distinct demographics: the population in Scotland has barely changed over four decades while it has risen by ten million in England. Scots are having fewer children, their society ageing faster. But it is mainly down to political leadership. After all, the two nations share the same nervous sentiments towards newcomers; a BBC poll earlier this month found identical levels wanting to see less immigration and similar levels wanting it stopped.

One other significant British party also shows welcome tolerance on this issue – and that is the Greens, whose policies may be confused but show clarity in their desire to reduce border controls. And like the SNP, they are growing fast with membership soaring from 13,000 a year ago to 55,000 today. Once again, many of these new recruits are young people disenchanted with a sclerotic political system and seeking change.

Is it coincidence the two political parties growing fastest in Britain have a positive outlook on this issue, by contrast with pessimism and hostility heard elsewhere in our political discourse? Perhaps not. After all, pollsters say immigration will not be a major factor in the next election. They point to the huge gap between high levels of people saying it is a major concern nationally and far lower numbers saying it impacts on them locally or in their daily lives. Surveys also show voters are relaxed about foreign investors, overseas students, medics coming to work in the NHS and those fleeing conflict or repression.

This is a time of political ferment – but the strongest insurgency is taking place in Scotland. Ukip made much of the political weather last year and might win five seats in May with its miserable message, yet the SNP is predicted to win eleven times this number. As Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think tank, says: ‘The biggest gains will not go to the most anti-immigration party in British politics but instead to the most positive.’

Ukip helped contaminate politics, pandering to prejudice and encouraging rivals to blame migrants as proxy for persistent failures on public services. Yet attitudes to immigration are polarising, not hardening. This is seen by region, scepticism usually greatest in areas of least diversity, and most especially by generation, with young people far more comfortable over cultural change and globalisation. And these are, of course, the voters of the future needed so desperately by mainstream parties if they are to survive this age of discontent.

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