Rise of Ukip is Cameron's fault – and Miliband's and Brown's
Why can't main parties come up with immigration policies to match the public's subtle concerns?
Whose fault is the rise of Ukip? The majority of the party's supporters are disillusioned Conservatives - so can it be blamed on David Cameron and his metropolitan neo–liberal brand of Conservatism, his determination to "modernise" the Tory party?
The Financial Times political commentator Janan Ganesh argues that blaming Cameron doesn’t make sense.
"According to this theory," writes Ganesh, "Britain's Conservative party took its natural supporters for granted by chasing liberal voters and London’s opinion-moulding cognoscenti. Treated like gauche relatives by their own leader, David Cameron, right-wingers found solace in Ukip’s bosom.
"When the Prime Minister disparaged their new home as a shelter for 'fruitcakes, nutters and closet racists', they only grew in number and indignation."
Thus Cameron became the "accidental father of Ukip" and the "architect" of its almost certain victory tomorrow in the Rochester and Strood by-election, giving the Faragistes a second MP in the Commons.
But this is wrong, says Ganesh. Cameron had already displayed his "modish liberalism" by 2006 – way before the last general election. And Ukip won only three per cent of the national vote in May 2010.
Ukip is a more recent happening, Ganesh argues: there is no correlation between the coming of David Cameron and the Ukip surge.
I disagree with Ganesh – he's thinking like a journalist, not a civilian.
We of the breaking news culture expect/want things to happen quickly, immediately. But they move more slowly in the real world: it takes time for new ideas, new characters to gel. It took time for the public to realise how different a Conservative Cameron was to Margaret Thatcher.
It also took the second coming of Nigel Farage as Ukip leader in September 2010 (he had done the job before between 2006 and 2009) to galvanise Ukip.
We tend to forget that at the time of the election, the leadership was held by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who soon gave it up saying he was "not much good at party politics" and that the party "deserved a better politician to lead it".
Farage, having dusted himself down after a disappointing election (he came third in Buckingham and nearly came a cropper when his campaign plane crash-landed), made an almost immediate impact, helped by Cameron who, just as swiftly, fell out with his backbenchers and many traditional party supporters.
It wasn't just the EU and immigration: the newly elected Prime Minister's interests - gay marriage, the green economy, his compassion for 'hoodies' – were of no concern to many Conservatives.
I would argue that Cameron is absolutely the father of Ukip – though Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown bear responsibility too.
How many were set on the path to Farageland by Brown's notorious encounter in April 2010 with Gillian Duffy, who wanted to talk to the then Labour leader about her anxieties over immigration from Eastern Europe and was dismissed as a "bigoted woman"?
Where I do agree with the FT's Ganesh is in his conclusion that Cameron "cannot stop Ukip".
In searching for a strategy to deal with Ukip, says Ganesh, the Tories "have tried scorn, magisterial indifference and, over the past couple of years, flattery through imitation. They are drafting a speech about immigration, which will come after the Rochester by-election, and already worry that its proposals will not be tough enough to erode Nigel Farage’s monopoly in the boom market for sour populism."
Ganesh is right: Cameron should stick to his beliefs – and so should Miliband.
Many will thank Farage for making immigration an issue to be debated openly - as it is in other countries - alongside the economy, welfare, the NHS. But we don't have to listen to him or his team for solutions – the latest being Mark Reckless's charming suggestion that long–term immigrants might be rounded up and deported if Britain ever leaves the EU.
This week's report from the British Future think-tank on public attitudes to immigration is fascinating: as Don Brind wrote for The Week on Monday, it suggests that public concerns are far more nuanced than Ukip's popularity might have us believe.
“Most people aren’t desperate to pull up the drawbridge and stop all immigration," the report concludes, "nor are they crying out for more of it. Instead they’re somewhere in the middle: worried about the impacts on jobs, public services and on the ‘Britishness’ of our culture; but aware of the benefits to our economy.”
What we need from Cameron and Miliband are ideas and strategies that match the subtle concerns of the public. Yet in their desperation to deal with disappearing votes, both men are guilty of jettisoning their beliefs and/or proposing back-of-an-envelope policies.
Labour's big announcement this week - that it would introduce an extra 1,000 new border and immigration staff paid for by a £10 levy on millions of visiting tourists - was about as subtle as Mark Reckless's deportation threat. We could, after all, employ a million border guards and they'd still have no right to stop visitors entering from EU countries.
“What we will never do is try to out-Ukip Ukip,” said Miliband in his "comeback speech" last Thursday. And yet here he was sending out his shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper to do just that.
It brought a stinging rebuke from Dan Hodges in the Daily Telegraph, accusing Miliband of treating the public as idiots. I won't attempt to out-Hodge Hodges. Read his piece and enjoy - though be warned, he really doesn't rate Miliband.