John Harris

Journalist & Author

The Tories are creating a hostile environment – not just for migrants | John Harris

With an election not far away, it doesn’t matter if policies work – only that they come down hard on malingerers and migrants

With 18 months until the next election, welcome to the latest phase of Conservative politics. Modernisation now looks like a brief nightmare from which a relieved party has awoken, and most elements of the Tory agenda seem to have been signed off by their campaigning guru Lynton Crosby. As a very insightful piece in the current issue of the New Statesman puts it: “No 10 aides boast that campaign strategy and policymaking are now inseparable.” In other words: plans are afoot that will have a profound effect on millions of lives, but they have almost no basis in what we once called “evidence-based policy”, and everything to do with desperate electioneering. The result is a meandering popularism that ignores questions about where the country might end up and fixates on the most cynical of political games.

Last week, we got Theresa May’s new immigration bill, full of moves that have been talked up for the last 18 months, which looks set to become law in the spring. No matter that the number of illegal immigrants in the UK may be as many as 1 million, that thousands of them have long since had UK-raised children, and that many toil in parts of the economy that would crumble without their contribution: as well as deterring potential illegals in the future, May wants them either to be forcibly removed much more easily, or to feel the sharp shock of a “really hostile environment”, and decide to go home, wherever that is.

Private landlords will now have to run checks on their tenants (thanks to the Lib Dems, something to be trialled in a single area pre-2015, though the Home Office insists this move boils down to the policy being rolled out on a “phased basis”). Getting a bank account will involve being cross-referenced with a list of “known immigration offenders”; temporary migrants will be charged a “levy” for use of the NHS; powers to collect fingerprints and search for passports will be extended. “Most people will say it can’t be fair for people who have no right to be here in the UK to continue to exist as everybody else does,” May said last week, and that was that: to use the argot of the last Tory campaign Crosby masterminded, she’s thinking what they’re thinking, which is all that matters.

And, of course, the policies won’t work. The urban demi-monde of landlordism, illicit employment and lives lived in the most precarious circumstances will balloon. Moreover, as the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association has pointed out, a “hostile environment” for one part of the population will entail a pretty trying time for everyone else, and routine identity checks for the whole adult population. Mindful of what might be called the British liberal inheritance, even Nigel Farage gets that: “This legislation would lead to a society where scrutiny in daily life would threaten individual freedoms and liberties,” he says.

As the Tories’ approach to so-called welfare hardens to the point of institutionalised cruelty, another election-oriented wheeze is about to arrive. In April anyone who is long-term unemployed will have to fall in with the regime the government has called “Help to Work” and, under pain of having their benefits stopped, be forced to either spend 35 hours a week in their local jobcentre, do indefinite unpaid community work, or agree to “compulsory training”. The “sanctions” system which is already pushing people into borderline destitution is sure to become even more arbitrary and punitive.

In political terms, whether any of this will actually work is scarcely relevant. After all, the existing work programme doesn’t work: thanks to the National Audit Office, we now know you’ve got a better chance of finding a job if you go nowhere near it. The bedroom tax doesn’t work: the entirely imaginary prospect of three- and four-bedroom houses being freed up was always going to bump up against the complete lack of one- and two-bedroom social housing. After another punishing report from the National Audit Office, it is looking increasingly like the grand project that is universal credit will be a disaster. But for now, it doesn’t matter: more than ever, politics is about the manipulation of appearances rather than any concrete outcomes, and, in the collective Conservative mind, as long as the party is coming down hard on an imagined army of immigrants and malingerers, all is well.

This year’s Tory conference made all this plain. Everywhere you looked were pristine banners dedicating the proceedings to “hardworking people”. The Conservative record was reduced to the simplest essence: “Welfare capped, crime down, immigration down.” Party conferences are seemingly designed to make you feel like you are going mad, but this one often felt downright chilling – so cold, mechanical and crass that it rather brought to mind such dystopian films as V For Vendetta and Children of Men (which, to quote from one synopsis, depicts the UK in 2027, when “refugees desperate to flee the chaos that has gripped much of the world have landed on British shores, only to be met by a police state that ‘hunts them down like cockroaches’”).

Amid the bathos and farce of British politics, that might sound alarmist. But if nasty populism meanders on and on, you run the risk of arriving at a society that will feel hateful and soulless even to the millions of people who were said to be willing its creation (including, I would imagine, plenty of Tories). If you want a sense of where we might be going, consider the fact that the Red Cross is to get involved in food aid in Britain for the first time since 1945, and imagine the most likely results of these latest government moves: even more desperate people, existing on society’s margins, and living from hand to mouth – untouchables, in all but name, there to be kicked around for other people’s political advantage.

Last week, we got a flavour of what Labour thinks. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, sounded more nuanced notes than Theresa May, but said moves on illegal immigrants’ bank accounts seemed “sensible”, and that the idea of checks by landlords was “sensible in principle”.

And then came Iain Duncan Smith’s new opposite number, Rachel Reeves. “Nobody should be under any illusions that they are going to be able to live a life on benefits under a Labour government,” she said. “If you can work you should be working, and under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important … It is not an either/or question. We would be tougher… If they don’t take it [the offer of a job] they will forfeit their benefit.”

In 1984, Orwell coined a term for this kind of political expression. He called it duckspeak: a bland but pernicious honk, these days the sound of intelligent people stooping to conquer, trying not to think about where all their meandering populism might take us. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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