The US election suggests there is a wider crisis for conservative thinking on migration
The role immigration has played in the US presidential election has been much–commented upon, right from the moment when Obama declared his intention to ‘fix the system’ in his victory speech.
Photo: Tricia Wang
There is an energetic scrabble taking place at the moment to learn the lessons which are emerging for democratic societies where an increasing proportion of voters are made of up first, second and third generation migrants. Whilst the US is to the forefront of this process of re-consideration, its implications also extend into Europe and the United Kingdom.
From the viewpoint of the United States, law professor and migrants rights blogger César Garcia has set out the dilemma for US politicians in the starkest terms in his recent commentary on the outcome of the election. With the result apparently balanced for so long, victory finally went to the candidate most skilled at assembling a coalition of support from the country’s disparate ‘values voters’ – including among the country’s 50 million strong Latino community. So will the Democrats now be able to keep this important voting block in their camp, or will the Republicans alter their course to poach them?
Obama, who despite his liberal image still managed to deport nearly 400,000 people in 2011, is certainly not off the hook as far as migrant communities are concerned. But the bigger problem undoubtedly exists for the Republican right-wing. Years of vilifying largely peaceful migrants have made them unpopular among these communities.
Leading figures in the Republican camp are floundering for a new narrative that will get them out the hole they have dug for themselves. For the time-being the favoured option, voiced by such figures as John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, FOX newscaster Sean Hannity, and right wing newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer, is for ‘border security plus amnesty’, allowing a proportion of those already in the country to remain whilst slamming the door on the arrival of newcomers.
This is a significant shift in the positioning of conservative opinion whose influence has, over the years, extended beyond the US and into the centre right parties of Europe. The notion that it is not such a great idea to make enemies of people who are still highly conscious of their origins in migration has certainly got out into the British Conservative Party. Though making up only around 10% of the electorate, the black and Asian vote in the UK tends to cluster around 40-odd constituencies where their demographic weight is considerably larger.
According to Professor Mohammed Anwar’s 2010 study, black and ethnic minority (BME) voters are showing signs of a commitment to electoral politics which is leaving the white majority community behind. People of south Asian ethnicity in particular show voting participation rates of around 70%; a full 10% higher than their white counterparts.
Astute Tories are acknowledging the fact that they are lagging behind when it comes to support from ethnic groups with recent immigrant origins. Lord Ashcroft, considering these matters for his party in his ‘Project Blueprint’ report published earlier this summer, pointed to the gap in support from BME communities for the Conservatives in 2010. He advocated a combination of “well thought out” immigration policies plus a “tough” policy on Europe as the route back to popularity for the sort of interests he imagined are bound up in black and Asian communities. However, as recent parliamentary developments have shown, the coalescence of immigration with European themes easily leads to anti-Europe and anti-immigration rhetoric.
Certainly the spotlight will now be on the role of immigration and how far it is likely to affect voting decisions among BME communities in 2015. It is still not clear how far immigration policy in the UK is a salient issue with BME voters, and likely that there is variation across different communities depending on how their experience of migration in the UK began. But it seems likely that a narrative on immigration that does not meet the interests of migrant communities will not result in an increase in voter support.
The US election result has allowed people on this side of the Atlantic to gaze on their own future at many levels – immigration policy being just one. It has also revealed a crisis in conservative thinking on the issue and the contradictions that will need to be overcome in order to rebuild a coherent policy on squaring the movement of people across borders with economic efficiency and social justice.
What the world looks like from the standpoint of the liberal centre-left when it ponders immigration in these early decades of the 21st century is, however, no less disconcerting. It is a subject this author will return to in a future blog.