Next year’s general election in Britain could be the most toxic in decades. Two things, Reform UK and immigration, seem certain to plague debate on the political right. The latest polls show the Tories on 21% and Reform up from 2% in 2019 to 10% now. Immigration is not the biggest electoral issue for voters, ranking behind the economy and health, but it is totemic for Reform. For the disaffected floating voters – polls suggest as much as 17% of the population is undecided – and the pursuing horde of politicians, it is code for control, security, community and national identity.
Excessive immigration was the primary issue that led the 2016 debate towards a hard Brexit. It is now taking the Tory leader, Rishi Sunak, down the same path, one of unattainable pledges to appease populist emotions. Brexit was supposed to curb immigration. Since 2019 it has shot up. For whatever reason, this central objective of Brexit has failed.
The two-year-old Reform party’s putative figurehead, Nigel Farage, has taken the advice apparently given by the American writer HL Mencken: that no one ever went broke underestimating the public’s intelligence. Farage has decided he will rally the British electorate to his cause by eating camel penises on television.
Populism is an intangible phenomenon. Recent voting trends from the Netherlands to Italy, Austria and Argentina indicate a growth in leaders, if not parties, of the nationalist right, for whom eccentricity as well as immigration and questions of race have at least a passing appeal.
Reform has nothing more to propose on immigration than anyone else. Every contribution Farage has made on the subject has merely fuelled the fire. His demand for a hard Brexit choked off the intra-EU labour supply chain, yet introduced more non-EU migrants in its place. The forms of control now desperately proposed by Conservatives and Labour alike – essentially pushing up the cost of migrant labour – would cripple the health and care services, and food supply. This would fuel inflation and public spending. Is that Reform’s policy?
The agony for Sunak’s government, as it would be too for Labour, is the sight of the boats crossing the channel. But they are the result of France, unlike Belgium, failing to stop the people smugglers along its coast. The emergence of an EU-wide agreement on smuggling is slow in coming, but Brexit destroyed collaboration with France. It left Paris with every incentive to export its immigrants and not seriously to impede the boat crossings. Once again, thank you to Farage and Brexit. As for sending migrants to Rwanda, it has become meaningless, barely even backed by the new home secretary, a costly headline policy aimed simply at stifling Reform.
Farage’s party, curiously still “led” by Richard Tice, proposes to stand for every seat in parliament. Old party loyalties are fast dissolving. One in three voters say they are likely to vote tactically in the next election, while a third of all MPs do not enjoy majority support in their constituencies. The scope for one-issue campaigning – as during the “Powellite” immigration election of 1970 – is thus considerable. It seems most likely to hurt the Tories by dividing the rightwing vote. Equally, it could draw some support away from Labour. Nothing is certain when rightwing militancy is on the march, as seen recently in London and Dublin.
Immigration is not a rational issue. It does not remotely threaten to “swamp” Britain, which has a lower foreign-born population than many other countries in Europe. A migrant inflow is, on various definitions, an economic boon, a humanitarian obligation and an irresistible force. It throws up social problems that need sensitive handling. But for it to poison the next election would be a tragedy. Farage should stick to his camel.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist