As victory for Mark Reckless in Rochester and Strood gives UKIP its second MP, it also confirms that immigration and the EU look set to remain near the top of David Cameron’s “things to worry about” list. The PM will be disappointed by the outcome in Kent. But he probably isn’t too surprised, since he decided to wait until after this by-election to make his ‘big speech’ on those very issues promised in the coming weeks. No-one’s quite sure what it will say – or whether it will succeed in unraveling the EU free movement conundrum.
How To Talk About Immigration, published this week by British Future, also looks into this puzzle and captures why it’s such a tricky issue for the strategists at No10. Cameron has to talk about the big issue on people’s minds, but also make promises he can keep. Can he do both?
To date, the Prime Minister has said he will “get what Britain needs” while being careful not to offer specific pledges on what reform will look like. But the big speech will have to go further. When public trust on immigration and Europe is in such short supply, attempting to duck the details of renegotiation for a year or two looks like a risky strategy – relying on masterful slight-of-hand as the electorate watches to see if the Prime Minister really can pull a rabbit out of the hat.
If no rabbit can be found, the audience won’t be impressed to be told that the small print never promised one. This risks repeating the experience of the net migration target, before 2010, when a popular soundbite becomes an unkept promise in office.
Even conjuring up a reasonable, medium-sized rabbit might go down as something of a disappointment, after all of the drum-rolls and razzmatazz, if people thought they were promised more than could ever be delivered.
The Prime Minister should adopt a more open strategy. Instead of asking the public to trust him, he should trust them to engage seriously with the choices on offer. He should seek to build a broader coalition for achievable reforms, across the British political spectrum and with EU allies. This could help to open up a public debate that has seldom gone beyond soundbites and slogans.
If the Labour Party wants Britain to remain in the EU, it should offer bipartisan support to the Prime Minister as he seeks reforms to EU free movement. Labour could also offer to practically engage European centre-left parties and trade unions to strengthen the coalition of support for reforms to free movement and workplace protections. A senior party figure, such as David Blunkett, could make a practical contribution to Downing Street’s diplomatic strategy by engaging key centre-left political voices in the EU.
The Liberal Democrats have made few significant contributions to the debate about reforming free movement, since they broadly share the view that there is no possibility of change. But pro-Europeans should be wary of closing down the debate. The argument that, if we stay in the club, we need to play by the rules, makes sense to people. But a club where the rules aren’t even up for discussion among the members sounds much less attractive. Supporters of free movement should engage more seriously with reform proposals, particularly those approaches which protect the interests of both citizens and migrants at the same time.
Those who want more significant reforms will need an effective strategy to build political support at home and around the EU. David Goodhart of Demos, for example, has suggested that a new approach to welfare contribution would be both deliverable in the EU and could also secure public consent. Others, particularly trade unionists, have suggested a focus on fair employment rights.
Cameron’s search for reforms is not necessarily doomed to failure. It should be possible, for example, to secure broad EU support for different transitional controls when new members join the EU. This may provide reassurance to the public. An emergency brake might perhaps be achievable in negotiations, particularly if this was genuinely set at ‘emergency’ levels – though less likely at levels well below current migration flows.
A more practical policy might be for the UK government to propose a new EU-wide ‘Free Movement Impacts Fund’, modelled along the lines of the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund (which supports workers to find a new job in the case of large-scale redundancies). Funds could be divided, each year, in proportion to the flows of EU migrants to each member state. A condition should be that the resources were allocated directly to local level, with national governments expected to use them to support areas of rapid change.
So free movement remains a conundrum that keeps the Prime Minister awake at night – but not just him. David Cameron has to tell us what he thinks he can get. His backbench critics would need to explain how he really could get more. But the victorious kippers have big unanswered questions too. What does ‘out’ look like?
Mark Reckless’ hustings howler over whether Poles would need to go home showed they haven’t thought through their plan yet. An “Australian-style points system” is a radio soundbite, not a proper plan. Britain isn’t Australia – so it needs to work out what deal to do with the large continental neighbours we do have.
After Rochester, nobody yet knows what the ‘in’ or the ‘out’ offer will be in a future referendum. The Prime Minister needs a negotiating strategy. But those who want to get out may need one even more.