The Rwanda asylum policy is working perfectly for Boris Johnson

15 Jun 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 15 Jun 2022

With no good ideas to improve people’s lives, the Westminster government has nothing left except its ability to fabricate arguments and make people angry.


Why are we sending refugees to Rwanda? Or, thanks to the rule of law, not sending them?

Why is the government spending so much time and energy discussing this controversial policy, and blasting anyone and everyone who gets in their way?

Senior clergy and “lefty” lawyers and the European Convention on Human Rights (a brainchild and passion project of Winston Churchill) are all under fire from the Conservative Party as MPs bare their teeth when confronted by the rule of law.

Because that is all this is: the law. That is what has, so far, prevented any asylum seekers being flown to Central Africa.

Therese Coffey is the Work and Pensions secretary and it was her turn on the media carousel this morning to talk up the government’s plans and criticise the things in their way.

She described Rwanda as a modern democracy. President Paul Kagame has been in power for 22 years. He was Vice President for the six years before that. Officially, he won the last elections, held in 2017, with 98.8% of the vote. He murders people he doesn’t like.

Why is this mad plan (it being both immoral and expensive) being taken forwards?

The answer is that this policy impossible to not talk about. It causes such friction, and so many arguments, that it dominates headlines.

And there is only so much room in the media, only so much room in the discourse, and only so much room in everyone’s heads. Fill it all up with Rwanda, and there’s no room for anything else.

Social values gap

The UK in a Changing Europe is a network of academics and researchers co-ordinated from King’s College London. In June 2020, the organisation published a paper looking at the gaps in attitudes between voters, members and MPs within the two largest political parties in the UK, the Tories and Labour.

Mind the values gap - The social and economic values of MPs, party members and voters analysed various data, including surveys of the Tory and Labour grassroots, to “dive into the often contrasting attitudes of members of parliament, party members and voters.”

It looked separately at the economic and the social beliefs of those three tiers of party stakeholder – MPs, members and voters – and found some interesting similarities, and perhaps even more interesting divides.

Socially, both parties were out of step with their voters. The research found that, in general, voters are more authoritarian than the people they elect to represent them.

MPs of both parties were more socially liberal than their party members who, in turn, are more liberal than the party voters.

Per the report: “The effect of this spread of views is that the average British adult is more socially conservative than the average Conservative MP. Indeed, on these issues Conservative MPs have views that more closely align with the average Labour voter in 2019 than they do with their own supporters.

“For Labour, there is a serious disconnect between their voters and the party, and even more so between the party and the average voter. Labour MPs cannot claim… to hold social values that are more aligned with the average voter than those of grassroots members; rather, they are the single most liberal group examined here.”

Bear in mind that this research was carried out in early 2020. Tory MPs and Ministers could have looked at these findings and guessed that they had plenty of room for a more authoritarian turn (such as deporting vulnerable people to Rwanda).

But there is another factor at play here, too – the economic analysis, where the results are very different.

Economic isolation

Economically, Labour members are slightly misaligned from the rest of their party. They are a bit to the left of their MPs and a bit to the left of their voters (the voters and MPs are in basically the same place).

The average Labour voter is a bit to the left of the overall average voter, who is a bit to the left of the average Tory voter.

That average Tory voter, however, is on the fringe of his own party. Tory party members are significantly to the right of the average Tory voters. Tory MPs are further right, once again.

Economically, the gap between Tory MPs and Tory voters is a chasm.

“Rather than being closer to the average voter, Conservative MPs sit to the right of party members, councillors and activists. And, in turn, the rest of the party (again with only a little difference between the various levels of activism) sits some distance to the right of its voters.

“The result of this sort of disjunction… is that there is a clear gap between the views of Conservative voters and the Parliamentary Conservative Party. There is then, an even bigger gap between Conservative MPs and the average voter.

“By contrast, Labour people’s views on fundamental questions about the economy – and this is true of all levels of the party in the figure – are significantly more in tune with the instincts of both their voters and the general public than are those of the Conservative Party.”

If the current Conservative Parliamentary Party has sought to take attention away from economic issues and put them onto wedge social issues, there are reasons for that.

Socially, they had some room to manoeuvre.

Economically, even in early 2020 – before the cost-of-living crisis, before the war in Ukraine, before the realities of Brexit began to bite, before the costs of Covid truly came into play – they were a world away from their average voter.

How is that going to look now? How is a group of MPs whose every inclination is to tax rich people as little as possible, who have no interest in addressing economic or wealth inequality, going to respond to a public who might rather fancy all of those things?

The answer is they respond by talking about something else.

Divide and conquer

Confected arguments exist to fill space.

They are not about their own details, not directly. They are about what is not being talked about, not being focused on, not being given any thought.

That’s the power of the entire, never-ending culture war. It is the essence of divide-and-conquer politics. Its effectiveness is laid bare by the research above – not just in analysing the present, but also by looking at the past.

The Conservative Party has been in power for a 12-year period where economic inequality and wage stagnation have been standard features. The recent spike in inflation has put great attention on the cost of living, but this is not a sudden problem. All those foodbanks didn’t emerge from nothing.

Tory voters don’t like a lot of their policies. The best way to keep them onside is to keep their focus, ire and emotional energy elsewhere.

So while this government has no good plans to tackle growing income inequality, the cost of living, crumbling health and social care, it does have a good plan to keep its base distracted.

Expect another plane to be loaded with vulnerable people and aimed towards Rwanda sometime soon.

You might not like it. You might hate it. You might be really glad if the next plane, and the one after that, stays on the runway. The government won’t mind either.

This isn’t a policy that is designed for successful implementation. Whether or not any planes take off is irrelevant. This is about filling the discourse.

On that front, it’s job done.

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