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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 April, 2005, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Battle joined over immigration
By Nick Assinder
BBC News website political correspondent

Immigration officer
Immigration: A vote swinger?
After a two day lull, election hostilities have resumed full tilt, with immigration back at the top of the agenda.

This most sensitive of issues has been an undercurrent in previous election campaigns, but politicians in the major parties have often held back from making it a core debate.

That now appears well and truly over as Tory leader Michael Howard insists he will not "pussyfoot" around the problem.

And he has linked immigration to other central campaign themes on national security, public services and the economy.

But Mr Howard is not alone in attempting to address the issue. Successive Labour home secretaries have sought to portray themselves as tough on immigration.

For some, like Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, there is something dangerous and unpleasant in what may be seen as a battle to prove who is the most hard-line on immigration.

Tough message

After all it would probably be hard to beat the British National Party on that front.

Underneath all this, needless to say, are opinion poll and focus group results suggesting it is a major issue for voters.

It is a volatile issue with enormous potential to stir up high emotion and even irrationality. The question remains though - is it a vote swinger?

As far as Mr Howard is concerned, it is an area on which the Tories have traditionally polled ahead of the other big parties, and continue to do so.

The fact that former Tory home office minister Charles Wardle has been put up by Labour to attack Mr Howard's approach as unworkable will prove only mildly embarrassing to the opposition.

What Mr Howard knows is that, on immigration and asylum, voters want to hear a tough message.

He also knows that Labour will struggle to overturn the Tories' image as the toughest on this issue.

Until now, Tony Blair has appeared to want to challenge the Tories on the grounds of toughness.

Debate descends?

Now he appears to have switched tack towards competence and the practicality of the Tory plans for quotas and offshore processing.

He also knows that in a knock down fight over who can be the hardest on immigrants and bogus asylum seekers, he is unlikely to floor Mr Howard. So he is attempting to refocus the debate onto what will work.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are attempting to portray themselves as the fairest party on this issue, with Mr Kennedy regularly expressing distaste at the nature of the debate so far.

All present their policies in the context that they are not racist and that they recognise the huge positive contribution immigrants have, and continue to make to Britain.

But human rights groups often claim the debate inevitably descends into the sort of rhetoric that can only play on people's fears, rather than concentrating on the facts of immigration which, they claim, are far less clear cut.

For example, as former union leader Bill Morris has previously suggested, is the issue really the level of immigration or voters' fears over immigration?

It is a volatile issue with enormous potential to stir up high emotion and even irrationality. The question remains though - is it a vote swinger?



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