The Tories did this after 1997, choosing first Hague, then Duncan Smith, and then Michael Howard as leaders. Each one was more shrilly Euro-sceptic than the last, and each one more suspicious of immigrants. Howard, in 2005, went so far as to propose withdrawing from the UN convention on Refugees, legislating for the immediate removal of refugees who had destroyed documents and only accepting refugees pre-screened at UN camps outside Britain (1).
Now Ed Balls, candidate for the Labour Party leadership, is looking to grub up support by making the appeal:
As Labour seeks to rebuild trust with the British people, it is important we are honest about what we got wrong. In retrospect, Britain should not have rejected transitional controls on migration from the first wave of new EU member states in 2004, which we were legally entitled to impose. As the GMB's Paul Kenny and others have pointed out, the failure of our government to get agreement to implement the agency workers directive made matters worse.Balls thinks there is something to be gained by Labour becoming xenophobic in lieu of any other ideas that might appeal to voters. The Tories did the same when they were in opposition.
So what is to be done? First, Britain needs to do more to boost skills, apprenticeships, innovation and jobs in every region. The next Labour leader must fight tooth and nail against Tory cuts in this area. Second, while net migration has eased because of the recession and will ease further when Germany and France remove restrictions next year, the temporary restrictions on migration from Romania and Bulgaria should be maintained – for longer than currently planned.
Third, I support the political and economic case for EU enlargement to Turkey. But wise voices in Britain's existing Turkish communities accept that Turkey's accession can only be made to work with continuing restrictions on the ability of unskilled Turkish labour to move across the EU, certainly for an extended transition period. Fourth, Europe's leaders need to revisit the Free Movement Directive, not to undermine the union, but to make it economically and politically sustainable. That means re-examining the relationship between domestic laws and European rules which allow unaccompanied migrants to send child benefit and tax credits back to families at home.
And it means debating what labour protections and restrictions on unskilled labour mobility are needed in an enlarging Europe, for the benefit of all European peoples. (2)
It's pretty sad when a party loses power and the immediate response is appeal to perceived latent xenophobia in the voters. In this case, the sub-text is, "Vote for me, I was an arrogant authoritarian bastard, but now I'm a nationalistic arrogant authoritarian bastard."
But British voters have traditionally rejected this sort of shit. Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard all went down to defeat, even as the New Labour project fell apart and the popularity of 1997 evaporated post-Iraq. 2005 would have shown if immigrant bashing would be show the way back to power, but it just condemned the Tories to another five years in opposition. It wasn't until they selected David Cameron, who's views on immigration, like his views on most things, are to shrug, smile weakly, and say, "Well, um, what do you think? That's our policy."
It's worth noting that 2005 also marked the electoral high point of the staunchly pro-immigration, anti-authoritarian Lib-Dems. Just looking at it from a purely pragmatic point of view, I don't think there is much to be gained from appealing to (perceived) blue-collar racism. It didn't work for the Tories, it didn't seem to hurt the Lib Dems, and the BNP have failed miserably to take advantage of it
Putting aside the fact that most of the immigrants were filling vacancies that the British work force could not or would not fill, rather than simply displacing British workers, and the influx of European labour probably helped many communities survive by bringing in new money and new businesses, and boosting local services, there have been tensions over immigration which have to be addressed. Jon Cruddas, back in 2005, acknowledged the issue of immigration, but took the saner, non-xenophobic approach:
Jon Cruddas, a former Downing Street adviser and MP for Dagenham, where the BNP made its biggest breakthrough in last month's council elections, said: 'In one sense I agree with the need to raise these issues.The difference being not on trying to close off the labour, but helping communities adapt to the changing world around them - neither the opportunistic nationalism of Balls, nor the laissez fair quasi Thatcherism of Blair and Brown. Actually listening to people, instead of telling them what they think.
'They are off the radar politically at the moment. There are huge issues about the movement of people into and within our urban cities.
'The solutions don't lie with the BNP, of course. But they demand a policy response from the Government so as to help the poorer communities that take the strain navigate through it.' (3)
Of course, the real problem is not Polish immigrants, but jobs moving overseas for cheaper labour in the far east. But as long as British people buy cheap goods from the orient, there's no reason for manufacturers to behave differently. But that's another story ...
1 - "Howard unveils Tory asylum plans," unattributed BC article. Published 24th of January, 2005. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/4200761.stm)
2 - We were wrong to allow so many eastern Europeans into Britain," by Ed Balls. Published in The Observer, 6th of June, 2010. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jun/06/ed-balls-europe-immigration-labour)
3 - "Ignore mass immigration at your peril, Labour MP warns Blair," by James Chapman. Published in the Daily Mail, 28th of June, 2006. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-393029/Ignore-mass-immigration-peril-Labour-MP-warns-Blair.html#ixzz0q47ByUkB)