In modern Britain it is virtually impossible to pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without being subjected to endless discussion about the ‘problem’ of immigration.
And when a senior Cabinet minister starts talking about towns ‘under siege’ and communities ‘swamped’ by migrant workers, we know that the treatment of this complex and sensitive issue has crossed the line into outright hysteria.
The culprit behind this development is clear – the seemingly inexorable rise of Ukip. With a first elected seat in Westminster, the promise of more to come and the party now polling around 17 per cent in May2015’s Poll of Polls, Nigel Farage’s party simply cannot be ignored any longer.
But while this naturally compels some sort of response from political opponents, there does not need to be such blind and unquestioning acceptance of Ukip’s apparent significance, as has been seen in the days since Douglas Carswell became the party’s MP in Clacton.
Commentators and politicians have rushed forward to proclaim how Ukip’s success can be attributed, in large part, to the negative effects of mass immigration on local communities that are losing their identity – and suffering ever more crowded schools, hospitals and other public services. Indigenous British folk are missing out, so the theory goes, on jobs and housing to migrants who are also exacerbating the “cost of living” crisis by bringing down wages.
Indigenous British folk are missing out, so the theory goes, on jobs and housing to migrants.
It would be a neat and compelling narrative, if only it were true. Or at least in the areas where Ukip is making greatest inroads.
Take Clacton, for example. The latest available figures – from the 2011 census – show that its ethnic composition is 95 per cent “White British”. Even allowing for a few more Eastern Europeans to have arrived in the last three years, adding to the 2.2 per cent officially classed as “White Other”, this is hardly a town overrun by swarms of invading foreigners.
Little wonder then that Douglas Carswell has been reluctant to play the immigration card since his defection from the Tories, despite endless prompting in media interviews.
The pattern is similar in the vast majority of other areas where Ukip has already experienced electoral success, or is expected to in future. The seat where Farage is choosing to stand, Thanet South, is a little more cosmopolitan than Clacton but still registered as 90 per cent White British and 5.6 per cent White Other in the 2011 census. This compares with an average across England and Wales of 80.5 per cent White British and 5.5 per cent White Other.
“They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame.”
A recent analysis in the FT by Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham University suggested that four Tory MPs would be more likely to retain their seat if they followed Carswell’s lead in defecting to Ukip. The four seats – Amber Valley, Cleethorpes, Dudley South and Bury North – are, respectively, 97 per cent, 97 per cent, 91 per cent and 85 per cent White British. All figures are well above the national average, and two of them strikingly so.
Ah, but what about Rochester and Strood, the seat where another Tory defector Mark Reckless is poised to become Ukip’s second MP? The party’s supporters will point to solid and legitimate evidence here of disaffection at Eastern European migration.
Well perhaps, but only up to a point. At 87 per cent White British in 2011, and even allowing for a notable influx since then, it is still not even getting close to average levels of migration.
It appears that, on the whole, Ukip is doing best in areas where people’s lives are not actually being greatly affected by immigration.
The evidence backs up the findings of a study released last month by Demos, the think tank, which concluded that anti-immigrant feelings are highest in the areas with fewest foreigners, or this recent data crunch by City AM.
A recent focus group of Ukip supporters carried by the Tory financier Lord Ashcroft concluded, “they are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame”.
They are quick to point to the apparent culture of political correctness, human rights and ‘elf ‘n’ safety’ that have broken their country’s backbone and apparently reduced its long-standing residents to second-class citizens.
Above all, they point to the classic bogeyman in all troubled societies throughout history – the foreigner. Even if their lives are relatively untouched by immigrants, the “other” will be blamed and scapegoated, as May2015’s polling day profile of Heywood & Middleton detailed.
Ukip, meanwhile, has a single unifying theory to bind all these strands together. It is Britain’s membership of the European Union, with its barmy edicts and freedom of movement, that has removed all effective control of our borders and changed the country for the worse.
This thesis might work in certain parts of Britain, but it will struggle to hold significant ground in most of the areas where people’s lives are actually affected by immigration. Here, notwithstanding certain problems that will inevitably arise, it is the principles of diversity and tolerance that are holding sway. That is why, in the European Parliament elections earlier this year, Ukip fared worst in the region most statistically “tarnished” by immigration – London.
It was those European elections, where Ukip became the first party other than Conservative or Labour to top the polls since 1906, that heralded the arrival of a credible political force. But a close study of those results also provides the most compelling evidence that pro-Ukip sentiment stems more from paranoid perceptions than actual reality.
They point to the classic bogeyman in all troubled societies throughout history – the foreigner.
After the East of England, the East Midlands was where Ukip recorded its second best performance, winning 33 per cent of the popular vote (albeit on a turnout of only 33 per cent). The region is instructive because its various wards cover the entire gamut of ethnic compositions. And they confirm the aforementioned pattern.
It won its most votes in South Holland, Lincolnshire, which is 91 per cent White British. Elsewhere in the same county Ukip won more than 40 per cent of the vote in North Kesteven and East Lindsey.
Precise figures on ethnic composition are not available for these wards, but the two Westminster seats that form part of North Kesteven are 96 per cent and 90 per cent White British, while the three seats that cover East Lindsey are 97 per cent, 96 per cent and 90 per cent White British.
The only part of the county won by Ukip where there is more diversity is Boston, which is still above the national average at 86 per cent White British. (The party hopes to win an MP in Boston & Skegness, despite a large Tory majority.)
Of the other 14 per cent, many are Eastern Europeans carrying out seasonal fruit-picking work that few others are prepared to do.
In contrast to these areas of Lincolnshire, Ukip performed worst in the most ethnically-diverse part of the East Midlands – the city of Leicester. Its three Parliamentary seats are 28 per cent, 44 per cent and 64 per cent White British. But Ukip did manage to win in neighbouring North West Leicestershire, which is 95 per cent White British.
It is a similar story in Nottinghamshire. Ukip fared badly in the city of Nottingham, whose three Parliamentary constituencies vary between 56 per cent and 76 White British. The party won out, however, in neighbouring Ashfield and Mansfield which are, respectively, 96 per cent and 93 White British.
The only city with a sizeable immigrant population where Ukip put up a decent fight was Derby, but it was still beaten into second place by Labour. Meanwhile it managed to win in nearby North East Derbyshire, Erewash and South Derbyshire which are, respectively, 97 per cent, 95 per cent and 94 per cent White British.
The East Midlands provides a mass of statistics that may take some time to digest, but they tell a striking story. It is one that is backed up by an analysis of Ukip’s results in the local elections which took place on the same day. The party won the highest proportion of votes in Basildon, Adur and North East Lincolnshire Councils. The various Parliamentary constituencies that cover these three areas vary between 89 and 97 per cent White British.
The next best councils for Ukip were Rotherham and Harlow, which both have 84 per cent White British populations. In these instances, immigration may have actually played a role. Harlow has had issues with Eastern Europeans undercutting local labour, while the case of grooming gangs of Pakistani men in Rotherham has created a charged environment.
Integrating immigrants can be problematic. There are parts of the country where resentment is growing at the real pressure on local housing and public services, and at the loss of indigenous identity.
David Cameron is quite right to challenge the principle of free movement in the EU, particularly from the continent’s less developed nations.
But these issues need to be analysed with a cool perspective and in a calm, evidence-based manner. Politicians, particularly those of a Tory hue, must resist the urge to ape Ukip’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration.
These issues need to be analysed with a cool perspective and in a calm, evidence-based manner.
Other than a few isolated examples, those Britons whose lives are actually affected by migration are not voting for Ukip in significant numbers. Most of them would prefer to get on with their neighbour, to celebrate their local diversity and resolve issues in an amicable manner.
Ukip, in contrast, are opportunists cynically preying on a base human instinct to falsely scapegoat those they have no connection with. The party is led by a man who even boasted in April that he was ‘quite proud’ to have taken one third of the BNP’s support since the last election.
Unlike its distant far-right relations, Ukip may now have to be taken seriously as a political force, but that does not mean it has a coherent or compelling message.
Harcharan Chandhoke last wrote about the cricketer Moeen Ali on 5 August for the New Statesman.