For some time now, influential voices like Jonathan Portes, Sunder Katwala and Robert Ford have urged ‘immigration liberals’ to recognise the positive shift in attitudes that has occurred since the peak of anti-immigration sentiment in the 2016 referendum. Liberals and the left risk missing the opportunity, they have argued, for embedding a new, more positive about immigration in British politics.
In response to these arguments, which are obviously right about the significant shift in opinion, I have warned for some time against against mistaking it for the end of serious political racism in British politics or, indeed, a general liberalisation of immigration policy.
I’ve had two main reservations. First, the proponents of this argument have not always emphasised the variability of attitudes. But if almost half the electorate have still not abandoned the idea that immigrant numbers need to be reduced – even after years in which the political right stopped strongly pressing that case – and if these voters are concentrated among Tory and Leave supporters, then there is still every incentive for the right to ramp up anti-immigration rhetoric when it suits them.
Second, the lasting impact of liberalisation will only be seriously confirmed when the right returns to this angle, but fails to generate sufficient support by doing so. The right’s switch in emphasis from overall immigration numbers to anti-asylum seeker hostility, and the support this has won, has hardly represented a convincing demonstration of a new liberal consensus.
Now an important new report by Robert Ford and Marley Morris brings serious research to the table about the implications of liberalising attitudes for the parties. It’s clear from this work that, as Ford suggests in this piece, a more ambitious liberal approach is almost a no-brainer for Labour.
However for the Tories, the implications are more mixed. On the one hand, they do need to keep the votes of some more liberal voters, who may otherwise shift to the Lib Dems or Labour. But on the other, they need to keep their anti-immigrant Leave vote, much of which they are already shedding because of the shambles of the Johnson and Truss premierships and the deepening cost-of-living crisis.
The report suggests that from a simple electoral point of view, the Tories have no easy course in the face of these two competing pressures. They will, of course, continue to try to play both sides, with modest liberalisations of immigration rules compensated for by vicious anti-refugee rhetoric. But two considerations suggest that in the end, political racism will win out.
First, Nigel Farage’s predictable threats to return will have their predictable effects on the Tories. The revival of a significant party to the Tories’ right could indeed be the final nail in their electoral coffin.
But second, and ultimately more important, the Conservative parliamentary party has itself been ‘far-righted’ since Brexit, with its liberal wing sidelined (many were expelled by Johnson). Those who commentators see as ‘moderates’, like Rishi Sunak himself, pay dutiful obeisance to core far-right ideas, as Tory near-unanimity over the Rwanda scheme demonstrates. It is implausible to believe that this changed Tory party will abandon its remaining racial-nationalist constituency; the Conservatives are likely to go down in 2024 still waving the flag of political racism that flew over Brexit’s infamous victory in 2016.