Fearing boundaries

As promised, here is a look at the issue of immigration in the upcoming British elections, originally published as an op-ed for the Dhaka Tribune at http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2015/feb/15/fearing-boundaries

The upcoming UK general election brings with it the usual slew of new promises, public criticisms of opponents across the aisle, and a ramping up of electoral rhetoric.

In a country that is growing increasingly apathetic with its political system – the average voter turnout having fallen to the lower 60 percentage points compared to the low 80s and high 70s of the previous century – politicians are increasingly aware that every vote is vital for their party’s survival.

With the three major parties also becoming similar in their approaches to the main policy areas, despite their protestations, it also means that any area of contention is ripe for the picking. Immigration, a hot button topic five years ago, has therefore become one of the more evident battlefields for May 2015.

Parties on the right side of the spectrum are pursuing strong anti-immigration goals, while those on the left are promising greater protections for immigrant and minority communities.

This very noticeable divide is also seen in the debates regarding the economy and healthcare, but there is one key difference between these areas. Unlike issues such as unemployment or privatising the National Health Service, immigration is actually not a top priority for the average British voter.

National surveys by leading polling companies YouGov and Ipsos MORI indicate that more than half of the voting population think immigration has been given too much priority. On a national average, it does not even register as one of the top five issues.

Which then leads to a genuine consideration of why it is one of the three major areas of contention between the parties, and such a visible one at that. On one hand, perceptions of immigration are more contentious and easily skewed than other areas. A different Ipsos MORI poll found that most Britons think close to a quarter of the population consists of immigrants, with the popular image of a migrant being either South Asian or African.

They also believe that being from a non-EU country is more likely to make a citizen draw from the benefits programs and contribute less to the economy.

The reality, however, is that migrants only make up 9.4% of the British population. While India and Pakistan are among the top nations who contribute to UK immigration, Ireland actually has the highest number of immigrants in the UK, with Germany and the USA also in the top five, making the average migrant just as likely to be Caucasian as not.

Also, contrary to popular belief, immigrants are 45% less likely to draw benefits and 3% less likely to live in free council housing than the average Briton. Additionally, they contribute more taxes and are more likely to hold a university degree than a native citizen.

Parties are happy to exploit these misconceptions. UKIP and the conservatives are constantly framing their foreign policies with a narrative of the “imminent immigrant invasion,” though the latter are slightly more subtle about it.

Even Labour, who are tackling the negative economic impacts of immigration without resorting to fear-mongering, are not dispelling the myths surrounding it. By feeding off these irrational fears and targeting communities that are historically easy to make scapegoats of, the parties hope to get the crucial swing support of undecided voters.

These are the people who are less likely to be aware of the real statistics and, in an election that is far too close to call, they could prove the difference between government and opposition.

At the same time, the immigrant vote is also becoming more important. Of the current registered voters, 10% are not naturalised UK citizens. 70 of the 650 constituencies have enough immigrant voters to decisively determine the final result. Furthermore, there is now a new pilot scheme to allow eligible voters based in specific countries (including Bangladesh) to cast absentee ballots.

This means that immigration policies, while not a high priority across the nation, are likely to be a key issue for a substantial section of the electorate.

The immigration debate has come a long way from its early days. With the UK more multi-cultural than it has ever been before – despite the delusions regarding the actual extent – it is likely to remain one of the bigger topics of political discussion for several years, if not decades.

As far as the general election is concerned, it could make or break the parties’ successes.

Given the UK’s position as a world power, regardless of popularity, that still draws large numbers of immigrants from across the world, it is vital to see how voters respond to the rhetoric and how it will shape up after May.

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