When the leader of UKIP – a party that feels the need to define itself as ‘non-racist’ on its official website – describes your immigration policy as ‘nasty and unpleasant,’ chances are that there’s something wrong with it.
This week the Home Office launched a billboard campaign aiming to increase the number of illegal immigrants voluntarily handing themselves in. The large billboards placed on the back of vans feature the slogan “Go home or face arrest” and are currently on a trial tour around 6 London boroughs with high immigrant populations.
Illegal immigrants are told to text “HOME” to a number for free advice and help with travel documents. Immigration Minister Mark Harper describes the initiative as “an alternative to being led away in handcuffs.”
Recently David Cameron appears to be taking more and more leaves out of the handbook of right wing populism, and is increasingly more keen to shadow the behaviour of the party he once dismissed as a collection of ‘fruitcakes’ and ‘closet racists’. With the prospect of UKIP repeating their recent electoral success in next year’s European elections, Cameron is trying to out-populist the champions of populism.
Irony died when Nigel Farage condemned this hard-line approach to immigration as nasty but whilst his criticisms are ironic, there is truth in what he is saying. This campaign simply is nasty, divisive and pointless. Sure it hammers home the message that the ‘Conservatives are tough on immigration’ but is it the right sort of tactic a responsible government should humour, and the costs are sure to outweigh the short term electoral benefits.
Firstly, the ad campaign is easily lamentable as ‘nasty’ racist propaganda. Sunny Hundal draws obvious similarities between the Home Office’s ‘Go Home’ slogan and the rhetoric of the National Front and BNP. Whilst the adverts are not racist themselves, should the government be so brazen about promoting and pandering to the voices of the fringe right?
Secondly, why is a subject as delicate as immigration being handled so coldly and with such brashness? Instead of approaching with some tactfulness the government has made a habit recently of trying to look tough on immigration, and coming across divisive. Earlier this month the Home Office controversially tweeted ‘there will be no hiding place for illegal immigrants with the new immigration bill’ alongside a picture of a dark skinned man being led in to the back of a van by some armoured policemen. Are whistle-dog tactics such as this wise at a time when British institutions are still accused of being racist?
In response to the launch of the billboard campaign, the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London held an ’emergency tension-monitoring’ meeting with Home Office officials and warned that the initiative had created ‘a sense of apprehension, tension and confusion’ amongst its clients. For a ‘compassionate conservative’, Cameron has acted consistently callously in regards to immigration
As well as being nasty and divisive, the effectiveness of such a campaign is doubtful. As Bishop Patrick Lynch identifies, the demographics of undocumented migration have changed in recent years. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are people who overstay the terms of their visas, especially students. So instead of parading around fascist slogans in ethnically diverse boroughs of London to pick up the odd dissatisfied voter, the government should focus on working with institutions dealing with immigrants and our own border control to solve this issue.
In face of all this, prominent Conservatives Boris Johnson and Nadhim Zahawi back a one-off amnesty policy that would provide a boost to the economy coinciding with tougher border policies. There are ways to solve the illegal immigration puzzle without resorting to the language and the tactics of the far right, unfortunately this suggestion was rejected by the party hierarchy, who’ll have next years European elections in mind and irrationally fear a repeat of UKIP’s 2013 summer surge.
Finally, the absurdness of the government’s approach has led to ridicule. On twitter, the #racistvan hashtag displays what little authority the campaign holds and is a testament to the government’s incompetence. The UK’s online wind-up merchants have been trolling the government’s campaign by flooding the billboard’s text number with prank requests for taxis home, free holidays and lifts across the country. The idea that illegal immigrants aren’t aware what they are doing is illegal and will be punished with a prison sentence as well is laughable. All this campaign does is play on the fears of disgruntled right wing voters and spark tensions in ethnically diverse areas.
So whilst trying to appear strong and tough on illegal immigrants the government in reality has come across nasty, divisive and incompetent. Theresa May once bemoaned that some people called The Conservative Party, ‘the nasty party.’ One way of rectifying this would be to avoid decrepit political stunts such as this.