Migrants, benefits & Europe: is Cameron playing Daily Mail bingo?
Yesterday the Prime Minister unveiled a new initiative which addressed the three main demons of the right in one go, ostensibly cracking down on the benefit entitlement of migrants from Europe. As my colleague Richard Exell has rehearsed, the announcement – released without detail so it’s difficult to say anything too authoritative – makes little sense as a practical policy, because European migrants simply don’t claim that much in benefit. And as others have pointed out, it isn’t even very new, with several of the measures announced apparently already on the statute books! So what’s going on, and what can we do about it?
What David Cameron is doing is not identifying a public policy problem and then advancing a solution (and a pretty statist, autarkical one for a free market, neoliberal conservative, at that!) He seems to be in the process of abandoning altogether the assumption that he can actually control migration, and is merely striking a tough, no-nonsense pose, to prevent the haemorraghing of Tory votes to UKIP.
As with so many politicians’ pronouncements on migration these days, it’s simply not about policy, it’s about politics. The prevailing popular view, according to TUC and other opinion polling, is that the British benefits and migration systems are broken, and ‘the facts’ about both are widely disbelieved (there’s a similar trust deficit on climate change evidence.) That doesn’t mean people don’t still hold to some of the underpinning values, such as fairness, or moving to find work, but it does mean that people have lost faith in the ability of policies to effect the change they are intended to deliver.
In that context, all politicians seem to be able to do is demonstrate their empathy with the voters’ concerns. Although it won’t feel like it if you’re a migrant, or on benefits, or (as the exasperated responses of various European Commissioners of different political hues showed) just plain European, the Prime Minister is showing that he ‘cares’ – he shares the voters’ pain. Labour politicians, who have spent a long time apologising for their stewardship of migration when in government, are doing the same, and therefore come to the same irrelevant policy conclusions.
The TUC and its affiliated unions do not like the conclusions this leads to (personally, I suspect that the politicians who advance these policies don’t either) and our day-to-day experience of the need for solidarity means we cannot adopt such a divisive approach. We do need to acknowledge where people are, but we need to develop ways of changing the narrative that leads from concern about broken migration and benefits systems (and, as European economic woes suggest, a broken Eurozone too); justified concerns about living standards; and fears for the future to cracking down on both migration and benefits.
The approach that unions are currently taking towards Europe may offer one possible solution. The ETUC has developed an investment plan for decent jobs and sustainable growth called “A new path for Europe”, partly because it is an effective policy solution to the economic crisis in Europe, but also because it gives people an alternative roadmap, and holds out the prospect of a better Europe, one that delivers for young people, for the unemployed, and for those totemic ‘hardworking families’. Union communications specialists met in Brussels this week to begin planning how to disseminate the plan in a more popular form, as part of a process of rebuilding trust in policy as the solution to people’s problems. Can we do the same for migration and benefits?