Last night was the first TV debate on the EU referendum. It was held in Glasgow, but the only nod to Scotland on the panel was the inclusion of Salmond (to be fair, there are no major figures in Scottish politics who are pro-Brexit, unless you count Galloway). Diane James has come in for some flak for supposedly being terrible, Alastair Campbell even going as far as to tweet: “More of
@DianeJamesMEP on the telly please”. Her “I don’t know” line on the visa question was poor, but actually, as far as UKIP figures go she is pretty good. I know that’s a low bar but seriously, James is usually a lot better than she was last night. The problem she had was that the brief she’s been given on immigration is terrible.
The Leave camp want to push hard on the immigration line. At the same time they don’t want to seem racist for two important reasons: one, this is Britain in 2016 and racism is really not a good look, and two, the Leave campaign is getting killed on BME polling intentions. Thus they have decided to take a European immigration bad, Commonwealth immigration (particularly from India and Pakistan, mentioned by name by James last night several times) good approach. There are so many problems with this construct it is hard to know where to begin.
Most importantly, I think, is Vote Leave should think about why they want to push on the immigration issue so hard in the first place. I’ll remind them why: because it’s something a lot of people care about and care about deeply. It’s also a tricky one for the Remain camp since free movement of people does what it says on the tin. But if you’re going to run on an anti-immigration line, you can’t complicate it – you can’t say we’ll get control on immigration numbers, oh but loads of people are going to pour into the country from the Indian subcontinent. That doesn’t make logical sense, and more importantly, is not going to play to its intended audience, thus undercutting the whole strategy altogether.
Also, if the whole point of the Europe bad, Commonwealth good idea is to seem less racist, it doesn’t take a PhD in philosophy to figure out that you’re starting with a contradiction in terms. Saying you want to keep Romanians out but you’d gladly welcome some Pakistanis doesn’t mean you’re not engaging in racism just because the group you are supposedly welcoming happens to have darker skin. You’re still saying to people, “let’s have less of that lot and more of that one”. BME voters aren’t stupid and can figure this one out for themselves (polling suggests they have done). So this part of the strategy will never work at all.
I get why the Leavers want to get the anti-immigration crowd voting for their side while not turning off people less inclined towards xenophobia, but I’m afraid that’s just not possible. The whole reason the immigration thing plays well to a select crowd is because it is emotive. It’s a classic Marmite issue. You can’t dial that up and down at the same time. So give Diane James a break – Barack Obama in his prime couldn’t have sold a political line this nonsensical.