Issue of the Week: 'If Anything, the Conservatives Are Understating the Rise in Immigration'; an Inflow of Young People Is Good for an Economy That Needs Workers. Rupert Murdoch Has Explained Why; Labour Hasn't

Article excerpt

Immigration has ignited two segments of the electorate: columnists and leader-writers. Across the spectrum of opinion, from the raw racism of the Daily Mail to the head-shaking liberalism of the centre-left broadsheets, views about the rights and wrongs of the issue have poured forth, at the prompting of the Conservatives. Yet there is little sign that immigration has altered voting intentions, or the likely outcome of 5 May. It has inspired rivers of ink, not rivers of blood.

On the face of it, the Tory attempt to play the race card has been a psephological blunder. It may have animated a core of right-wing voters, and protected the Tories' flank against the United Kingdom Independence Party, but it appears mostly to have succeeded in driving disenchanted liberals and Muslims back to the Labour fold.

"The right-wing press turns out to be new Labour's best friend," says the Observer columnist Will Hutton. "The British people are small 'p' progressive, and the press has consistently overestimated their degree of racism. But it has driven some supporters back into the new Labour coalition."

This is one of the reasons Labour is choosing to ride out the immigration issue, which seems to be doing the Conservatives as much harm as good. All the polls show that people care more about the economy and public services than about immigration, so Labour is sticking to its turf. Labour's basic response to the Conservative line is one of distant disdain.

The result is that, for all the heat, there is little light being cast on what is an important issue for an affluent nation with a falling birth rate in a global economy. The Conservatives have raised the issue, but only in a cartoonish fashion, which lumps together legal immigrants with asylum-seekers, travellers and yobs. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are silent.

This is a pity, because there are substantive questions at stake. Some Labour commentators have attempted to unpick the Tory statistics. This is the wrong approach. Immigration is indeed on the rise. If anything, the Conservatives are understating it. The much-quoted figure of 150,000, cited in their manifesto, is drawn from data on 2003 prepared by the Office for National Statistics. This figure is the balance (actually 151,000) between a net outflow of British citizens of 85,000 and a net inflow of non-Brits of 236,000.

Over a longer time-frame, it is clear that in the past decade, there has been a growth in net migration. The number of people leaving has increased--by about 100,000 a year--but at the same time, the number of people entering the country has also increased, by roughly 250,000 a year. The net result has been to add more than a million to the UK's population in the ten years to 2002, compared with a rise of just 240,000 in the previous decade and a net outflow of 430,000 between 1973 and 1982. If the movement of British citizens is taken out of the equation altogether, the story gets even better for the right-wingers. If I were advising Michael Howard, I would suggest the following statistic: since Labour came to power, one million non-British immigrants have joined the population of the UK.

The argument against the Conservatives has to be won on its merits, not its maths. It is worth saying, however, that the 151,000 figure for 2003 amounts to 0.25 per cent of the population. …