So the ‘go home’ vans policy experiment has been judged to be a failure. Illegal migrants do not seem moved by vans covered with large adverts advising them to return to their countries of origin. But failure on what measure? Certainly on the criterion of realising its stated goal of increasing voluntary returns. As the Guardian reports, only one person returned as a result of the advert, and that was only by reading about it in said paper. On the other hand, it has succeeded in attracting massive media attention to the idea that the Conservative Party is serious about cracking down on illegal migration – not so much a dog whistle as a very loud (van) hoot to UKIP sympathisers.
That’s all short-term tactics. But what about the damage this type of populist policy does to the credibility of a large, catch-all centre-right party such as the Conservatives? In a 2008 article for JEPP, Dan Hough and I argued that centre-right parties face a number of risks in pursuing populist anti-immigrant positions. They run the risk of alienating more moderate voters who feel queasy about their party playing the race card; they frequently conflict with human rights or judicial constraints, obliging governments to back down from restrictive excesses; or – probably most relevant in this case – they turn out to be unfeasible in practice, revealing an embarrassing gap between populist rhetoric and practice. The Conservatives don’t seem to have been seriously affected by this problem yet, indeed they appear to have gotten off from this fiasco remarkably lightly. But there is a real risk that persistent failure to deliver on populist, restrictive rhetoric will erode the authority of their claims to be tackling irregular migration. Especially with a party like UKIP exposing their deficiencies. So the Government should be careful with its rhetoric, and cautious about the initiatives it chooses. Stick with the aspects of immigration you can deliver on; or – if we want to be tactical about this – the things that can’t be measured or attributed. And Labour: we’re still waiting for some progressive leadership in this area.