The Tories are becoming the ‘nasty party’ on immigration

Published in The Guardian (June 11th, 2012)

The manifesto commitment could hardly have been clearer: the Conservatives were going to make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe. “We need good, strong families to help our society work well,” they declared. “We will support families to stay together.” Their coalition partners agreed, pledging to give every family the support needed to thrive.

In the light of such promises, the latest attempt to stave off meltdown in the polls is perplexing, to put it mildly. For the government is boasting of its intention to split up thousands of families each year. Although only poor ones. And those with a foreigner in their midst.

On Sunday Theresa May confirmed that Britons who fall in love with someone from outside the EU will be unable to bring them into the country unless they earn at least £18,600 a year. Even then, their partner is likely to be stuck in the purgatory of a probation period for five years, rather than the current two. And if foolish enough to have children, the required income rises substantially.

Ostensibly, this is to stop migrants sponging off the state. Government statistics, however, show foreign-born people are less than half as likely to claim benefits as those born here (while paying the same taxes, of course).

May says her flint-hearted policy is not about numbers. In one respect she is right. It is about winning favourable headlines, part of a weekend fightback after the budget omnishambles. The move may cause pain for those caught in the trap, forced to choose whether to stay apart or move abroad, but it sates the focus groups demanding ever-tougher action on benefits and immigration.

But if immigration policies are not about numbers, why has the government imposed an arbitrary cap, already doing such damage to universities, one of the few booming parts of the economy? This is the real reason for the reform: as many observers warned, the government is unlikely to meet its immigration targets, hardly surprising in such a globalised world. But then, as David Cameron pointed out in opposition, top-down targets distort priorities – and nowhere is this truer than with immigration.

Ministers should consider the implications of this latest move. First, forcing an estimated 15,000 families each year to emigrate or live apart is not just heartless – it gives the lie to those manifesto claims to support society’s building block. Second, by picking off the poorest families, the fear that Conservatives care only about the rich is reinforced, undermining six years of modernisation just as with the disastrous decision to cut top-rate tax. Third, it is not going to help win over those ethnic minority voters the party has belatedly recognised it desperately needs.

A more mature approach to migration is required at this time of economic paralysis. One in three people living in London is foreign born, a key reason why the south-east is the only region of Britain giving more to the state than it takes out. Migrants have been shown to boost everything from wages and growth to educational achievement and innovation. Additionally, with nearly 5 million Britons living abroad, there is something arrogant about our assumption that we can live and work wherever in the world we like, but won’t allow many foreigners to join British partners in this country.

This plan is morally suspect and in breach of manifesto promises, another short-term tactical move that threatens the government’s long-term strategy. A decade ago, it was May who warned the Tories they were perceived as “the nasty party” because some members made political capital out of demonising minorities. It is a speech she would do well to remember.

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