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Choose the form of your temptation. Imagine it as money: piles of votes neatly stacked like bank notes in a billionaire’s vault; as something made by Nigella Lawson, an unconscionably enormous pyramid of meringues covered in glistening chocolate sauce; or be more traditional, and conjure up the apple Eve was persuaded by the serpent to ingest.

It’s a nervous time for electoral strategists. The parties seem relatively evenly matched, but traditional allegiances have broken down. Pollsters pore over their survey tables, watch and re-watch focus group tapes, double-check the crosstabs and calculate propensities to vote. Each time they reach the same, inescapable conclusion. There is to be found, in the outskirts of market towns, and among the farther suburbs of larger cities, to the north as much to the south, a group of floating voters. They are worried about immigration. They think there’s too much. They want it reduced to zero.

The politics would seem to be simple: adopt tougher policies, win over these voters and with them, the election. Thus, William Hague warned that Britain was becoming a “foreign land,” Michael Howard promised “controlled immigration,” and Gordon Brown appropriated the far right slogan “British jobs for British workers.”

Each time, leaders insist they can bring the number of immigrants down. They promised an asylum system based on mass detention without trial. They achieved a byzantine nightmare that recalls the less efficient totalitarian states. Britain’s airports now give travellers the impression of fortresses. In the rest of the world, weary passengers arrive at passport control to posters displaying a country’s natural beauty, or exhortations to invest in its productive workforce. Instead, Gatwick airport installed videos of police raiding illegal immigrants’ houses at dawn beneath a vast sign bearing two uncompromising words: “UK Border.”

To this has been added the Government’s cap on net migration. That figure, of course, is affected by the number of people who choose to leave, as though Ministers think Britain a nightclub – fit to operate a one in, one out, policy. Investors and tourists are deterred. Companies are finding it harder to get the right staff. Internationally renowned professors, fed up with the constant need to fill in interminable forms, and having their passports sequestered for months by the Home Office, are leaving.

The more enlightened opponents of immigration make a distinction between highly skilled foreigners, who should be encouraged, and young, mostly unskilled people whom they fear take jobs away from Britain’s own unemployed. If this were true, we might well be faced with a genuine dilemma. Fortunately, their fears are misplaced. Economists explain that there isn’t a “lump of labour” that is then shared around. Because the minimum wage is in place, unskilled migrants can’t reduce the wage rates for unskilled work. But since employers know they are hard working and highly motivated, they save money because work is done more efficiently and time isn’t lost thorough absenteeism and clock-watching. All this makes businesses more efficient and generates growth. Nobody asks “How much richer would the United States be, if it hadn’t let those immigrants in?”

Now a heard-hearted Thatcherite pantomime villain might be heard to say: If people from Gdansk come here to get jobs, why can’t people from Gateshead? They should get on the Megabus and look for work.

Indeed worries about immigration are a symptom of Britain’s economic problems, not their cause. By promising to crack down on migrants, politicians make the crisis worse. They give people false hope that reducing immigration would make their lives better. When that hope is dashed, voters turn to the far right.

Those floating voters had once supported Labour. Socially conservative, they cast ballots out of class interest, holding their nose at their “progressive” upper-middle class leadership. Change hasn’t been kind to them. Shipping containers replaced longshoremen; robots, workmen assembling cars; miners in foreign countries, and the gas turbine, a well-paid job down the pit. After the Soviet Union collapsed ex-communist nations dropped self-defeating economics and developing countries cast aside their misguided attempt to emulate it. With half the world no longer handicapping itself, competition for work that doesn’t need the highest levels of education suddenly got a lot tougher.

“Exactly!” chirps the ever flexible pollster, if Paris was worth a Mass, maybe Westminster is worth a little immigrant bashing. But it turns out that it doesn’t even work. William Hague, Michael Howard and Gordon Brown all lost their elections.

Instead of playing on people’s fears, we need to carry out the reforms that will get people back on their feet. Major welfare reform so that it’s always rational to work. Free childcare. Higher tax thresholds. Fewer barriers to entrepreneurship. Serious vocational education and language training — small and medium-sized businesses should be able to export to France and Germany. We need to instil confidence, not fear. There’s been enough destruction, it’s time now to create.

Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Political Philosophy at the University of Manchester.

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