Immigration: Whilst Tories are taken over by division, Labour should stay alert

In a speech in Italy, the Prime Minister said that insufficient action would lead to growing numbers that will “overwhelm our countries and our capacity to help those who need our help most” warning that failing to tackle illegal migration would “destroy the public’s faith” in politicians and governments.

Mr Sunak was speaking at a festival hosted by Giorgia Meloni’s populist Brothers of Italy party in Rome, as he attempts to persuade the Conservative Right and Tory voters that his Rwanda legislation will be sufficient to ensure deportation flights can begin and deter future illegal Channel crossings. The controversial Bill is due to return to the Commons in January, when the Prime Minister needs to face down a potential rebellion within his own ranks.

However, despite the rhetoric coming out of the Conservative Party, in Britain, opinions on immigration are divided. While 52% of the population favours reducing immigration numbers, the stance varies between voters of different political affiliations. Those who supported Labour in the 2019 General Election are less inclined (37%) toward reducing immigration compared to Conservative voters (74%). This is why former Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the European Research Group are continuing to spearhead the right-wing populist wing within the Conservative Party, put under pressure by Reform UK and Nigel Farage’s return from the jungle.

But the Conservative Party should be wary of flirting with Farage. Election defeat of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal-right VVD party in the Netherlands should serve as a warning sign. Professor Catherine de Vries is right to observe that migration crackdowns won’t help Europe’s moderate right. Immigration motivates a hard core of far-right voters. But an important driver of the far right’s current success is the centre right’s hollowing out of public services through austerity. The Conservative Party and the VVD have both made the same mistake: endlessly raising immigration as an issue, while being unable to quantify or solve the problems they highlight.

A few weeks ago, Dutch politics made headlines worldwide. The BBC reported on the “shock” victory of anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders, and Fox News named him the “Dutch Donald Trump”. However, Wilders’ win wasn’t entirely unexpected. Polls indicated that 8 in 10 voters in the Netherlands sought limitations on asylum seekers, reflecting a sentiment predominant among right-wing voters, yet also resonating with substantial groups from left-wing and centrist parties.

During the last weeks of the election campaign the ruling liber-right party VVD opened up the possibility to work together with Wilders in a coalition – something which many commentators say enabled Wilders to gain credibility and allowed voters to vote for a clear rightwing option. This should be a clear warning sign for the Conservatives in the UK. No matter what Rishi Sunak announces, it won’t satisfy the ERG, nor Reform UK voters. It’s also unlikely that his Rwanda plan will ‘stop the boats’ nor address the underlying pressures. Talking tough will not make things better in people’s lives.

Back in the Netherlands, if elections were to take place now, the PVV would win 43 seats, an increase of six seats compared to the November elections. These seats mainly come at the expense of the VVD. Wilders didn’t just focus his attention to immigration, he linked this to the lack of social housing, and as professor de Vries highlights, the reduction of ‘bestaanszekerheid’, loosely meaning ‘livelihood security’. Sounds familiar? Indeed, research into 2006 elections across Europe indicated that support for the far right sharply increased in municipalities where Austrian citizens faced the prospect of competing with immigrants for public housing.

Wilders’ convincing election win should also be a warning sign for the Labour Party. It might be tempting to be gleeful looking at the Conservatives tearing themselves apart again, Labour should stay alert. In the Netherlands the progressive coalition of GroenLinks and PvdA (the Greens and Labour presented a joined election list) under former European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans failed to make enough inroads, and the electorate has shifted to the right.

As one former PvdA Member of Parliament recently put it to me, we failed to put a clear and compelling progressive answer on the table. We are often too nuanced and measured in our language, and we have allowed Wilders with his right wing populism to set the political agenda. Writing for Progressive Britain, Gerard Rinse Oosterwijk, Policy Analyst at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, echoes my sentiment, “It is frustrating for progressives to see the extreme-right profile itself on issues like the housing crisis and affordable care while at the same time winning votes in the social-cultural debate.”

If Labour wants to give Britain its future back, we should take back control of the narrative.  


Read Gerard Rinse Oosterwijk’s piece, Shock Wilders win leaves Dutch progressives in despair here.