Immigration looks set to be Leave’s last card

Immigration looks set to be Leave’s last card

Alastair Meeks looks at the outers

The Remain side has started the fight at a furious pace, leaving Leave gasping for air after two blows to its solar plexus.  First, it got hit by a Treasury report claiming that by 2030 each British household could be £4,300 worse off if it voted to leave the EU.  Then Barack Obama weighed in with his view that if Britain were to vote to leave the EU, it would join the back of the queue for new trade deals.

The Leave response to both has been dazed and confused.  In each case a multitude of Leave campaigners came out with a multitude of response lines, good and bad, and in each case the most ill-judged was pounced upon by Remain and pawed at for days on end.  As a result, the public could gather the impression that Leave think that £4,300 is a bargain basement price for getting out of the EU and that Barack Obama’s ancestry is pivotal to understanding why he is saying that the USA wouldn’t race to do a trade deal.  We are seeing Gresham’s law of political debate, where bad arguments are driving out the good ones.

Leave’s own campaign was mauled by Remain also.  Leave’s prospectus for Brexit is being portrayed by Remain as the Albanian option, drawing on an unwise Leave reference to a list of countries with similar deals (in different circumstances).  It is unlikely that floating voters’ hearts pulse to a Balkan beat.

Leave need to regroup and they need to get a grip.  It was always going to be hard running a tight campaign when so many big egos were at loggerheads as to who should be in charge but the effort has to be made.  Perhaps the first week’s failures will chasten some of those big egos.  Perhaps.

Leave need to get back to home territory for a while.  The public’s number one topic of concern in opinion polls is immigration and Leave need to try to tie getting that under control to a decision to leave the EU.  This connection is tautologous in the heads of many Leavers but it is nowhere near as secure in the public’s minds as those Leavers seem to believe.  Further work is needed here.  So it is no surprise to see Michael Gove take on this subject this week.

Immigration in the public’s mind comprises many different things: economic migrants from the EU; economic migrants from outside the EU; asylum seekers arriving in Britain; illegal immigrants to Britain; and disorderly migration to the EU (of both asylum seekers and economic migrants) from non-EU countries.  These in turn tie in with many different concerns: competition for jobs; pressure on public services; sense of community; law and order; and the EU’s response to social challenges.  Some of these have nothing to do with the EU, some of these are entirely the product of our membership of the EU and some of these are indirectly affected by our EU membership.  But they all get jumbled up together in the Leave campaign’s arguments.

Clearly Leave benefit from this jumbling to some extent.  In order to make an argument, however, they need to pick one or two attack lines out of this and run them hard. So, what to pick?

Leave need to avoid anything that could be construed as dogwhistling on race – dragging the US president’s parentage into the debate emphatically does not help in this regard.  The voters for whom such arguments are clinching are anyway almost certainly already in the Leave camp.  For that reason I would not recommend majoring on the security threats caused by some migrants.

Leave would do far better to focus on the economic impact of immigration, in particular the impact on wages.  The last notable contribution to the debate from Stuart Rose, the nominal leader of the Remain campaign, was to note that Brexit would lead to wage rises.  It is incomprehensible that Leave have not been exploiting this relentlessly ever since.  But they seem more intent on inhaling the fragrant air of freedom than on informing the public about any economic advantages of their position.

The clip at the top of the thread shows the editor of the Independent, from 2:36 to 3:02, fluently explain how immigration is perceived to be good for the rich and bad for the poor.  In fact, the evidence is quite nuanced on the point as this Bank of England report shows – “the biggest effect is in the semi/unskilled services sector, where a 10 percentage point rise in the proportion of immigrants is associated with a 2 percent reduction in pay”.   Nevertheless, no one is going to persuade the public in the next two months that wages aren’t held down by immigration.  So Leave should take full advantage.

The Treasury report in support of the government policy of Remain was founded on the assumption that there would be 3 million more migrants in Britain by 2030.  Leave should be hammering that home.  (Of course, Leave’s own economic projections are also built on the assumption of large numbers of migrants, but that doesn’t need to be mentioned.)  By playing on a sense that not only have the Remainers not done anything about immigration, they don’t want to, Leave can hope to lead a peasants’ revolt against the establishment.  They can also hope to attract working class Labour supporters without whom there is no plausible route to a victory for the Leave campaign.

Can Leave stick to a single message of this type?  That may be their biggest challenge.  With so many divas, it will be hard to get them singing in harmony.  Or even singing the same song.

Alastair Meeks

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