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Politicians: when their silence speaks volumes

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 31 March 2010

As Gordon Brown focuses on immigration in a speech today, political journalist Gaby Hinsliff examines why it will not be an election issue for the big parties - along with Europe and party funding.

Who let the dog out? (AFP/Getty)

It's a common myth that sniffer dogs bark when they find something suspicious – but in fact, they're trained to raise the alarm by quietly sitting down.

So to detect a bomb, watch for the dog that doesn't bark - and the same can be true of politics.

The issues we don't hear about on an election campaign trail can reveal almost as much about the shape of the next parliament as those making headlines.

Not least because if the three main parties do end up forced to discuss them, it's often a sign they've panicked.

Today sees the emergence of one issue that's been absent so far from the pre-campaign skirmishes: immigration.

It's still higher on Ipsos-MORI's list of key voter concerns than unemployment.

But unlike in 2001 and 2005, when fears over immigration formed a key plank of Conservative campaigning, this time David Cameron doesn't want to talk about an issue associated with the unreconstructed old party he claims to have modernised.

All three parties also fear highlighting immigration boosts the BNP

Gordon Brown will make today only his third speech on immigration since becoming prime minister.  

He will pledge to deliver a "controlled and fair" immigration system that is flexible enough to meet the needs of British business.

His speech follows a promise to control immigration on Labour's new pledge card (under the banner of strengthening fairness in communities), suggesting he is prepared to campaign on the issue if the party feels its white working class vote slipping away.

By contrast, almost nobody wants to discuss Europe.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats fear broad public opinion is more eurosceptic than they are: Cameron doesn't want to revive party infighting over Europe, nor field awkward questions about his proposed referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

If he does make Europe an issue, it's probably a sign that UKIP is gaining enough traction to make him nervous.

But Europe is not the biggest foreign policy omission. When Tony Blair told the Chilcot inquiry the west now faces "the same problems" with Iran it once had with Iraq, he was reflecting debate in Washington over whether and how to stop it becoming a nuclear state.

Just like the Iraq conflict, that decision has huge consequences for international security, defence budgets (and thus the rest of public spending), the transatlantic "special relationship and the UK's role in a new world order. But debating Iran wins no votes in southern marginal seats, so don't hold your breath.

The same goes for civil liberties. The recent report from a joint parliamentary committee arguing that the state of emergency in which we've lived since September 11 may be unjustified prompts big questions. Are the security services accountable? What are the genuine threats now? How much surveillance should we tolerate?

But they'll be drowned out by an election rush to appear "tough on crime", with Labour exploiting opponents' criticism of the national DNA database by citing cases of rapists and murderers who would not otherwise have been caught.

We may hear about Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition to ID cards, but couched more in terms of saving cash than libertarian principle. 

And the dog that definitely won't bark no matter what? State funding of political parties.

Many MPs privately believe taxpayer support is the long-term antidote to funding scandals, but after the parliamentary expenses furore, anyone suggesting it fears getting bitten.

You can follow Gaby Hinsliff on Twitter

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