Europe is lurching right on immigration. Despite Farage and Sunak’s best efforts, Britain will not follow

By Polly Toynbee, The Guardian.

The ugly rhetoric of the Tories and Reform obscures a simple truth: most voters understand the need for foreign workers

There’s turmoil in the EU as the far right advances. Macron risks all, trusting that people vote in protest for the remote EU parliament, but vote for real governments at home. After all, we sent Nigel Farage to fart rude taunts and abuse at MEPs for 20 years until Brexit, and he got nowhere much in the UK.

But Britain, with a resurgent Labour party set to sweep in, is on a reverse path. Our own hard-right wing, in the form of Farage’s Reform party, may relegate the Conservatives to third place in votes, and the sideshow battles between the rump right will be a fascinating farrago. But the future is all with Labour and how it governs.

These demagogues are good at their art. A snap poll anointed Farage the “winner” in last week’s TV debate on Britain’s Got Talent criteria, his booming oratory shamelessly free of factchecking. Only one sulphurous issue propels him, the same immigration fears and factoids that power the far right across Europe.

That political elixir blends nationalism with disappointment and justified grievance, so easily blaming migrants for a lack of housing or NHS appointments, low wages, bad jobs. Those raw emotions have too often felt too visceral for conventional politicians to dare confront, leaving them mumbling awkwardly and promising the impossible. Borders do matter, determining nationhood and who shares in taxing and spending. Porous borders signal a state malfunction, as images of arrivals – mainly men – packed in perilous inflatables allow this small proportion of immigrants to be gleefully misrepresented as the bulk of big numbers here by invitation.

Farage thrives on shock – not dog-whistles, but blasting full-foghorn racism at Rishi Sunak. “He doesn’t really care about our history … This man is not patriotic. Doesn’t believe in the country, its people, its history or frankly even its culture,” he tells the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. He and Boris Johnson, outstanding rogues of the era, are gifted performers licensed to say whatever pleases: theatricality, quick wit and a dose of sociopathy is all it takes (other EU populists share those traits). On the BBC, Farage gifts squillions in tax cuts, all to be paid for by sacking NHS diversity trainers. Taking the side of ordinary folk against the “liberal elite”, he knows the magic of Orwell’s “ignorance is strength”.

But those who use immigration to lever themselves up have only one strong point. People have been tricked and lied to time and again. “Stop the boats,” Sunak emblazons on his lectern, exaggerating impossible promises made by every government. Farage’s “net zero” immigration pledge is barely less preposterous. Governments must strive to control undocumented arrivals, but Canute would have warned about the futility of simply commanding “stop”.

Instead of explaining the need for foreign workers, governments took the coward’s way and promised what they can’t and shouldn’t deliver. Tony Blair said there’d be only 13,000 net migrants a year from newly admitted EU countries in 2004; in Labour’s final term, net migration averaged 247,000 people per year, much of it from the EU. David Cameron knew promising only “tens of thousands” was impossible, as did Theresa May when copying him in her 2017 manifesto. The number rose to 333,000 in 2018. Of course, they all know they can’t make such cuts without devastating economic damage. Sunak now pledges a visa “cap”. His Rwanda “plan” is the supreme fiction, vastly expensive, wasting fruitless political energy on Suella Braverman’s “dream” and “obsession”. And it’s not over yet: Labour suspects a secret Tory plan to get a flight off the ground before the election. If so, with five guards for every exile, astronomic costs, protests and last-minute court appeals, Sunak risks another fiasco.

Promising unicorns always ends badly. Dishonesty about immigration has bred the deepest distrust of politics. Delivering an honest explanation is easier now than ever before, as public opinion has swung markedly towards understanding migration. Most people can see the need: more than 150,000 vacancies for care workers leave 1.6 million frail people left in neglect. Cafes and restaurants close for lack of chefs. Britain’s nuclear projects are short of the 138,000 workers they need by 2030. Who will fix the National Grid, water pipes and sewage outflows, let alone build Labour’s 1.5m homes, with the number of construction workers in the UK falling by 14% since 2019? Few think it reasonable to count valuable foreign students in immigration numbers, as they go home. But leaving all this unargued too often lets Faragism win the day.

However, the public are already ahead, the majority turned realist: Brexit has proved to Britain how inextricably we are tied to trade and competition for skills. While Tories and Reform scrap over anti-immigration votes, Prof Rob Ford shows more than half of voters think immigration levels should stay the same or need to rise.

Labour this time looks less terrified of immigration, adamantly condemning the logistics of the Rwanda absurdity, staunchly opposed to international law-breaking and rejecting fantastical migration targets, beyond an undated intent for them to fall. (They will anyway, after the Hong Kong and Ukraine inflow.) Policy to get those more than 2.5 million sick people cured and into work, as well as investing in missing skills, apprenticeships and further education, should lead to more home recruitment. Raising pay and improving career paths start with a fair pay agreement for care workers. Curbing small boats, Labour will divert Rwanda money to beefing up a border force of inspectors and restoring EU crime-sharing data to catch the gangs: no magic “stop” promises, just keeping at it.

We shall see if a fissiparous European far right bound by anti-immigration sentiments can hold together. Back here, the sight of countries across the channel turning rightwards leaves distressed Spectator writers protesting that Britain’s left turn is “a wild anachronism”. But in Britain, it’s they who are now the left-behind dying breed. I note their language changing to describing Europe as “our continent”: do they yearn to return?

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