Why UK politicians are talking about immigration

British politicians from all three major parties have been talking immigration.

Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband kicked off the round with an apology for Labour’s mistakes in government. His Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper outlined demand-side proposals pledging tougher enforcement of labour regulations (minimum wage) aimed at protecting the most vulnerable workers and promised apprenticeships for British youth.

Then Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made his first speech on immigration last week – more than three years after joining the Conservative-led government. He announced a U-turn on his party’s election pledge of an amnesty for illegal immigrants who had been in Britain for at least 10 years. That pledge was outdated voters would see such a move as reward for law-breakers, he said.

More surprisingly, he said he had ordered bureaucrats to run a pilot with a scheme to demand cash deposits from some visitors from some ‘high risk countries’ from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. The last time the proposal for a security deposit was mooted was in New Delhi by the then home office minister Keith Vaz. The Indian government was so angry it cancelled every ministerial appointment Vaz had lined up. The idea was quickly shelved.

Now Prime Minister David Cameron has announced measures to ensure that migrants aren’t able to get free or subsidized social housing soon after arrival – a problem known here as benefit tourism. In a speech aimed primarily at East Europeans, Cameron said immigrants would have to have lived in an area for at least two years before their names could be put down on the waiting list for social housing.

Normally, such talk precedes a general election. But elections are due only in May 2015, and Cameron’s coalition government is keen to show that it can last the five-year term.

The likely reason for the sudden spurt in immigration talk is the rise of the UK Independence Party, which has made immigration its focus. So far, it appears to be focusing on East European rather than Indian immigrants, possibly because of the generally-held view that low-skilled British jobs are at threat mostly from East Europeans.

The party beat the Conservatives into third place at a recent parliamentary by-election and trailed the winning Liberal Democrat party candidate by fewer than 2,000 votes. Its leader Nigel Farage said last week the party can “mount a serious, credible campaign in the 2015 general election.”

The first test of whom the public believes will come in the form of elections to the European Parliament in 2014. Smaller parties such as the Greens and UKIP tend to do well in these elections because voting takes place by a system of proportional representation.

In the 2004 European elections, UKIP came 3rd; in 2009 it came 2nd. “We are now aiming at first place in the 2014 European Parliament elections,” says the party – without any hint of the irony implicit in the fact that the UKIP is strongly anti-European.

The UKIP is certain to trumpet its ‘mainstream credentials’ for the 2015 general election if it does well in the 2014 European parliament polls. And at that point immigration will become the main election issue.

Which is why the three mainstream parties are in a UKIP funk.

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