Who was driving the vans, Mr. Crosby?

Now here’s something that I found surprising. After the Home Office’s vans had dragged the topic of immigration into a yet more unsavoury place, we were informed by The Sunday Times that Lynton Crosby, the Conservative Party’s chief election strategist, did not approve of their deployment. To quote the article,

“[Lynton Crosby] has suggested that the Home Office’s scheme for “go home” vans targeting illegal immigrants is flawed and has backfired…In a private meeting he indicated that the vans were playing into the hands of Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, by focusing the debate on the “tactics not the issue”.” [My italics.]

Hmmm. I would believe this, but for the fact that Mr. Crosby has previously been instrumental in focusing the immigration debate on the “tactics not the issue”. Mr. Crosby helped to guide John Howard to four victories in Australia’s general election, and it is the win in 2001 that is most instructive here. Then, during a campaign where immigration was a key concern among voters, Mr. Crosby, in the words of The Independent, “was linked to claims…that asylum seekers had thrown children overboard to drown in order to secure safe passage into the country.” These claims were subsequently found to be false, by which time Mr. Crosby’s party had won the election.

On the one hand, we could step away from this supposition, and say that Mr. Crosby has been unfairly tarred with stigmatising foreign visitors to his party’s shores. On the other hand, we could also note that Mr. Crosby’s tenures as a party’s chief electoral strategist do seem to coincide with that party’s alarmingly sharp spikes in anti-immigration words and deeds. Given that he is a man renowned for his strategic brilliance and tight control of messaging, it seems very unlikely that the Home Office’s series of controversial tweets and the presence of immigration control vans on the streets emerged without his knowledge or consent.

Here’s what I think: and I could be wrong, but here goes. I think that these tweets and these vans (to say nothing of the UK Border Agency’s requests for people’s papers) were all part of Mr. Crosby’s intention to test the water, to see whether there was a public appetite for severe anti-immigration policies. I say this because of the relatively low expenditure that was put into this exercise. All that it cost the Conservative party was a few tweets, and a few vans on the street.

If we look at the UK Home Office’s twitter account, the number of “suspected #immigrationoffenders [my italics]” being arrested was hardly dramatic; just 139 nationwide on 1st August 2013. This doesn’t look like a widespread crackdown: if illegal immigration really is the epidemic that the rhetoric suggests, then this figure would presumably be higher. No: instead, this felt like an experiment, conducted well in advance of the election, to see just how far this wedge could be driven into one of our society’s carefully-developed wounds.

On that analysis, those tweets and accompanying photos of those vans weren’t directed at Twitter. Instead, they were projected beyond London, where Mr. Crosby assisted Boris Johnson to two electoral victories as the city’s mayor, to a less diverse population far less comfortable with all this multicultural stuff. The resounding negativity with which these actions have been received have forced the Conservative Party to take a slightly milder tack on immigration. Moreover, their failure – for now? – has led Mr. Crosby to distance himself from them.  After all, it’s either that, or accepting the gleeful charge from Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, that the vans were “an astonishingly stupid idea”.  Mr. Crosby must now retreat and to calibrate his message more carefully for the heartland: to outflank UKIP whilst keeping the right number of centrist voters in his camp.

Now, some might argue that they see nothing wrong with the Conservative Party’s tweets, vans and spot checks. To them, I would reply that the mere lack of the correct documents does not justify public humiliation: and, moreover, if we’re going to target suspected offenders in this fashion, then why not do the same for those who are suspected to have evaded tax? Why single out immigrants? Some might also say that we should move on: that we should accept Mr. Crosby’s version of events, that it was not he who approved these actions but rather the Minister of Immigration Mark Harper, who was being somewhat overzealous in the prosecution of his duties.

Hey: maybe I should relax. But in truth, there’s nothing about this episode that gives me any cause for comfort; or which suggests that, in the months approaching the 2015 general election, we won’t see the resurfacing of such unpleasant narratives.

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