I believe it is a grave mistake to imagine that the referendum can be won on an anti-immigration ticket. It is for the most part only a minority of people that believe otherwise, yet they are an extremely vocal and aggressive group who are more politically active than many, giving them influence out of proportion to their numbers.
They have a spiritual leader in Nigel Farage who is persisting with the idea that immigration, and inciting hysteria over the refugee crisis, is key to winning the referendum. In continuing with this narrative he will become a major liability. He is extremely popular with his core vote, and may well get out up to 4 million people to the poll, but beyond that core vote he has become toxic.
He is seen by the wider public as a divisive and controversial figure. In focusing on immigration to such a degree and often in in the kind of tone that repulses people – I think here of his lamentable AIDs remarks – he has ensured that he has limited attraction and has created a glass ceiling for Ukip. It is not a coincidence that the Farage led Ukip campaign on immigration correlated with increasing support for the EU. It toxifies Brexit, and leaves a nasty stench of xenophobia hanging in the air which the British public will veer away from.
Campaigning on immigration may well have brought victory in a low turnout vote at the Euro elections, but it limited the success of Ukip at the general election and it will be a disaster if Farage and an angry anti-immigration mob are allowed to dominate the Leavecampaign and hog the publicity. The idea that the incredibly important 20% soft swing voters will be won over by them is a dangerous delusion. It will send them running to voteremain. Anti-immigration Brexit will lead to a decisive loss.
In response to this it will inevitably be pointed out that the polls show a great percentage of the British public are concerned about immigration, and it will be put to me that it isn’t racist or irrational to want to control our borders. To which I would reply, indeed it isn’t racist, and the desire to “control our borders” is exactly that, a desire, an aspiration; it isn’t a policy or a coherent proposal on how to achieve the ultimate aim of reducing immigration, which is easier said than done in an open, liberal country, with or without freedom of movement.
The significant paradox at the heart of the British immigration debate is that there is a majority for reducing immigration, and better management of our borders, but a wide-spread repulsion by the nasty, xenophobic tone that the immigration debate often takes. If you take a perfectly reasonable point of debate, and raise the perfectly reasonable anxieties of the public, but discuss it in the wrong tone, you will put off the wrong people. In doing this Nigel Farage let down all the moderates of his party, and ensured his party could only enjoy limited growth.
The fence sitters and swing voters will think about their jobs and finances, and that of their family, long before they consider “controlling our borders”. Both consciously and sub-consciously they will consider the side of the argument they are aligning with too, and what it represents. These are not the kind of people shouting “we want our country back” at your local Grassroots Out rally, they didn’t vote Ukip and wouldn’t vote Ukip, and though they may -if asked – say they’d like our borders to better managed, or immigration reduced, this will not bet their primary thought before they put pen to paper in the booth.
The Brexit campaign is all about tone, image and vision. The tone cannot be bitter, nasty or aggressive, the image cannot be of a xenophobic, angry, ranting mob and the vision cannot be negative, inward looking or regressive.
It would be a catastrophe to focus on a border control campaign and “it’ll be alright on the night” visions of what Brexit will look like in lieu of a proper plan, arguments that neutralise fear uncertainty and doubt and pragmatism.
Nor should we make empty promises or build a campaign on aspirations without substance. It is extremely unlikely that the British government, in the event of a leavevote, will abolish free movement, due to the fact that it will prioritise continued participation in the Single Market. This is the only viable means of securing our economy and concluding an agreement within two years. For the foreseeable, freedom of movement will remain.
It essential to realise, however, that abolishing freedom of movement is not a magic wand that will solve the issue of unsustainably high immigration. Much of it is not related to freedom of movement in Europe and cannot be blamed on the EU, and reducing the numbers needs coordinated policy and multi-layered solutions, not just demands and aspiration.
This post was originally published by the author on 12 February 2016. http://thescepticisle.com/2016/02/12/brexit-cannot-be-achieved-on-an-anti-immigration-platform/