David Cameron’s EU negotiation is a sham. He knows it, and so do the ardent Tory proponents of Brexit. The prime minister understands that a considerable source of anti-EU hostility is motivated, above all else, by opposition to immigration. And so he conducts a charade, pledging to satisfy a lust to close British borders by compelling EU migrants to work in Britain for four years before they can receive in-work benefits.
He didn’t need Sir Stephen Nickell, a senior official at the Office for Budget Responsibility, to tell MPs that the impact of such a move would be “not much”. No impartial source has offered evidence suggesting that it would work, or that the vast majority of migrants are attracted by anything other than work and a fondness for Britain. This is politics as illusion, with Cameron as chief illusionist, and the magician George Osborne completing the circus troupe.
Yes, the EU is examining a proposal for an “emergency brake” on migrants entering Britain under certain circumstances. But this is something for which Cameron reportedly has little passion, and he is redoubling his efforts to secure a four-year limit.
As one EU diplomat told the Financial Times: “The reason Cameron hasn’t gone for this must be that the problem that he has in Britain is mainly one of perception, not of real economic impact.” And that is what matters to an illusionist: how something is perceived, rather than how it actually is.
For the Tories, immigration works in their favour whatever happens – or at least until their opponents come up with a convincing message. They have set an arbitrary immigration limit that has been repeatedly – and devastatingly – missed. Its main achievement is to further undermine the public’s faith in politicians delivering what they promise. Nonetheless, if immigration remains high it means an issue on which the left is poorly trusted remains a political priority in the minds of millions. Sure, it risks boosting the currently flagging Ukip, but though Nigel Farage’s diminished purple army is an imprecise weapon it certainly inflicts significant damage on the Tories’ Labour opponents. If immigration decreases, then the Tories can claim success and warn that the opposition would reopen the gates.
Illusions are what the Tories excel at. They back Labour’s spending – down to the last penny – when in opposition, then in government claim that it was financial extravagance that plunged the country into economic chaos. The crash may have originated in Britain’s financial hub, a sector whose lavish donations keep the Conservatives financially afloat, but Cameron and Osborne skilfully transformed a crisis of the market into a crisis caused by state spending. A failing of laissez-faire economics was spun into a historic opportunity to scale back the state. Like immigration, the colossal failure to close the deficit in a single parliament – as Osborne had solemnly promised – became a success, ensuring that an issue on which Labour was poorly trusted remained salient.
An alleged scandal involving Tory private donors became an opportunity to introduce a lobbying bill that left corporate titans alone, instead focusing on NGOs that might scrutinise the Tories’ record. And so on.
This is written not as a complaint; it is partly a love letter. The Tories are very good at politics – even if it is a strategy soaked in dishonesty and deceit – and that is why they are the world’s most successful electoral force. What the Conservatives understand is that politics is as much about sentiments and emotions as anything else. Labour went into the last general election with arguably more policies than any other opposition in modern history. But there was no vision or coherent message to bring them together: a ragtag of policies thrown into the ether, as though Which? magazine had become a political party.
Voters are not political geeks, like me, but people with lives to lead – and they do not spend their time poring over the details of individual policies. The Tories offered clear, simple messages that had emotional resonance, rather than Labour’s blend of stale technocracy and political consumerism. Labour’s timid offer for the poorest (spare a moment for the £8 minimum wage) and lack of anything to say to those in the increasingly insecure middle was trumped by a comfort blanket of security and stability.
Polling shows that the gap between public perceptions and reality is very wide indeed, and in a manner that can only benefit the right. One poll found that the public believed benefits fraud was 34 times greater than was actually the case; immigration was double its real level; and teenage pregnancy was 25 times higher than official estimates. That’s not because the public has been bombarded with, say, assertions from the media and politicians that benefit fraud accounts for £24 of every £100 claimed rather than just 70p. Instead, they have been subjected to a regular diet of emotionally compelling stories: of extreme examples of benefit fraudsters with multiple children and luxurious lifestyles.
It would be easier to assail the cold, disingenuous Machiavellianism that constitutes the Tories’ political strategy. The Tories are a merry band of illusionists, excelling at distorting perceptions rather than dealing in actual realities. To believe that politics is conducted solely at the level of reason is to lose. This is what the embattled opposition to the Tories has to learn. It needs to appeal to people’s emotions, their hopes as well as their insecurities; to take crises and ably turn them to their advantage, rather than being tripped or even consumed by them; to have a coherent message that can be easily translated into a pub conversation as well as one conducted on the doorstep.
The opposition doesn’t need to copy the dishonesty and deceit of the Tories. But it does need to learn from them if Labour is to succeed again.