With only two weeks remaining before the UK general elections, recent polls all give a slight lead to Tony Blairs Labour Party. The Partys internal polls, however, seem to be saying something else.
How else to explain Home Secretary Charles Clarkes announcement, earlier today, that the Labour government intends to add an additional 600 border guards if reelected? Three weeks ago, Conservative Party leader Michael Howard made a similar pledge, promising to create the UKs first ever border police force in the event of a Tory victory.
Clarkes announcement is just the latest sign that Labour is taking the Tory threat seriously and is seeking to outflank it.
Immigration and asylum issues are the sole area in which Howards Conseratives consistently lead Labour in opinion surveys. As it happens, they also consistently top out polls of publicly important matters. Since taking up the issue in late January, the Tories have seen their fortunes revived.
And this has gotten Labour worried. In recent weeks, Labour Party hacks have tirelessly hammered away at the disastrous consequences of the supposedly incoherent Tory proposals. Meanwhile, Blairs government has modestly adopted a lite version of almost every one of those proposals.
Labours track record on the issue hardly inspires confidence. Since Blair took office in 1997, immigration to the UKmuch of it driven by abuses of Britains generous asylum systemhas skyrocketed. When public dissatisfcation with the governments lax attitude to asylum first became a political issue last spring, Blair hastily called a special summit of government ministers to address the issue. They addressed the issue . . . and then quietly pushed it back under the carpet.
This graph, based on Home Office statistics current through 2003, nicely dramatizes whats happened in Britain since Blair took office:
Labour is almost certain to win the election on May 5thgiven the Tories weak position in Parliament, its hard to imagine any other outcome.
But by seizing upon immigration and asylum, the Tories have done what few had expected and given Labour a run for its money. Along the way, they have brought into the open and legitimated public concerns over immigration which, until now, were buried under the same politically taboos that prevent discussion of the issue in the US.
However the election turns out, British democracy has already scored a victory. As Blair himself today remarked in a speech closely cribbed from the Tories campaign handbook:
Concern about asylum and immigration is not about racism. It is about fairness. People want to know that the rules and systems in place are fair.
People also want to know that those they elect to government get it. That we are listening. We do get it. We are listening.
They are listening in London. And in Washington?