Tories need UKIP credibility to decline not increase

Jon Owen Jones comments on how immigration is being dealt with by the UK parties in the run-up to the general election

The public in all parts of the UK believe there should be less immigration, and even recent immigrants tend to agree. But how to respond is presenting dilemmas for each of the UK parties.

The latest threat or fear is that Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants will take advantage of new employment opportunities next month and come to the UK in large numbers. In part this concern is also about the Roma population in these countries and their ability or willingness to assimilate.

Each party is faced with difficulties. Labour in office helped to create the problem, especially by allowing freedom of movement to Polish workers in advance of other EU countries doing so. Labour’s position now is that it acknowledges its previous mistake and calls on the government to get tougher.

The Liberal Democrats have been the most immigrant friendly party but are now also favour a tough government response.

The Conservatives have always had a tougher line than other parties and have suffered in some ways because of it – it feeds the perception of a nasty party and it costs votes in ethnic communities. Today they have two particular problems. Firstly it is very difficult within treaty obligations to restrict immigration; and, secondly, whatever they do they will always be outbid by UKIP.

The recent measures announced by the Coalition neatly illustrate their problem. New restrictions will be imposed on the ability of EU immigrates to claim benefits here. All the UK parliamentary parties are in favour but it is doubtful if there will be much practical effect. It has already caused a dispute with EU Commissioners but that will probably be perceived as a positive result in Downing Street.

What has been the public response? Two polls earlier this month show Conservative support at 28 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. The same polls give the highest ever figures to UKIP, at 19 per cent and 15 per cent. Conservatives need around 40 per cent electoral support to be the largest parliamentary party and more than that to form a stable majority government. The numbers only fit for the political right in Britain if you add UKIP and Tory support together.

In the coming 12 months are three electoral hurdles which will have some influence on the general election in 2015. In May the European elections are held, as are council elections in 160 English Authorities. Unless there is some scandal involving UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage I will be astonished if they do not make large gains in both contests. They may gain the largest number of EU seats, certainly in England.

At the same time, the turn out will be derisory and electors will not behave in the same way in the 2015 general election. Those will be the comforting words in Downing Street. However, of less comfort will be the realisation that UKIP’s momentum continues and its financial strength and local government and activist base grows. Tories need UKIP credibility to decline not increase.

The third electoral hurdle will be in September with the SNP’s independence referendum in Scotland which will have consequences for us all. The irony for the Conservatives is that their best hope of winning in May 2015 is to lose in September 2014.

Jon Owen Jones is a former Welsh Office Minister and Labour MP for Cardiff Central.

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