Policy experts have devoted massive attention to analysing the effect of UKIP on immigration policy. But there’s been very little reflection on how other ‘smaller’ parties might affect immigration policy. Based on the recent pre-election leaders’ debates in the UK and Scotland, it’s time to address this imbalance. By offering a platform to the leaders of all 7 parties, the debates provided an opportunity for smaller parties with more progressive immigration policies – the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru – to showcase their party positions on immigration. The outcome was music to the ears of those advocating more liberal policy. Here were three voices articulating a more progressive vision, and prepared to confront UKIP views head on. By contrast, the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems came across as reticent or non-committal.
One reason for this is that these smaller parties are targeting niche groups in the electorate, and can afford to dispense with the more anti-immigrant segments of the electorate – indeed in the case of the Green Party, they hope to broaden their support by positioning themselves as pro-immigration. This contrasts with the strategies of the two main parties, which are still effectively ‘catch-all’ groupings, aiming to attract supporters from across the ideological and territorial spectrum, including those who are concerned about immigration. Labour also feels shackled by perceptions of its poor record in controlling immigration before 2000. And the Lib Dems are compromised by their failure to mitigate the restrictive rhetoric and policies of their coalition partners over the past 5 years.
So does this imply that the emergence of a greater number of smaller parties, representing more niche sections of the electorate, will usher in a more enlightened debate on immigration? Is the Borgenisation of UK politics a good think for immigrants? Perhaps. However, I’d suggest two reasons for caution.
First, the strength of this progressive voice wasn’t just a question of numbers, i.e. the inclusion of 3 leaders with more liberal stances. The format of the event – a hustings-style public meeting, with an audience selected to represent the electorate – lent itself to a more progressive vibe. It staged a very culturally entrenched ritual of the UK democratic process. Implicit in this format is the idea of inclusivity, fairness, an equal right to be heard – perhaps even Habermas’s “ideal speech situation”. In such formats, speakers who articulate ethical positions, who express a commitment to norms of fairness, rights, tolerance, or liberty, often get an especially good reception. They capture the inclusive, democratic mood. In such settings, progressive views on immigration are far more likely to enlist vocal support. But let’s not get too carried away. These formats are far removed from the mode of debate characterising most political discussion between friends, families and colleagues. And it’s a far cry from what canvassers report they are hearing ‘on the doorstep’.
Second, this 7-way platform is far from typical of media coverage of party positions. While the debate gave each leader roughly equal airtime, even the BBC weights its coverage based on level of electorate support. And the print media of course have no such strictures, determining coverage based on their ideological affinities (which in the UK are mainly anti-immigration). So we can’t expect the progressive views of the three smaller parties to penetrate large sections of the popular media.
That said, I found it immensely refreshing, even exhilarating, to hear a robust defence of immigrants and calls for a more open and realistic approach to immigration. And I was reminded of how the public mood can turn against overly negative or restrictive views. Recall the reaction against Michael Howerd’s excessively anti-immigration position in the 2005 election. Public debates provide good forums for shoring up collective support for fairer and more humane positions. I think they bring out our better nature.