A MORI poll shows that race relations and immigration are currently rated by voters (some 40 per cent) as the most important issue facing Britain, even ahead of the National Health Service.
Making the issue respectable could help the Conservatives, but there are also downside risks as is shown by the resignation of the prospective Conservative candidate for a Midlands constituency after he praised the controversial stance taken by Enoch Powell.
Governments always get themselves in trouble when they are shown to have got the figures wrong and this is what happened over migration. Not only did it appear that the Government has lost track of the number of migrant workers (which is not easy to measure), it also emerged that foreigners were taking most of the country's new jobs.
Gordon Brown opened himself up to criticism on this issue by pledging that his government would work with business to give 'a British job to every British worker.' Official figures have shown that fewer British workers are now in work than at any time in the past five years. Of 2.17m jobs created since 1997, 1.13m have been filled by foreigners. The most recent figures show that the number of Britons in work is falling while employment of both EU and non-EU foreign nationals continues to rise.
Some industries such as horticulture are highly dependent on foreign labour, in part organised through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers' Scheme (SAWS) which from next year is confined to Bulgarians and Romanians. The fact that, say, lettuces are readily and cheaply available in British shops reflects the presence of these workers.
Why not use workers from the local unemployed pool? It's not just that they will not work at minimum wages. Growers will tell you that such workers often turn up late or do not turn up at all and have less good work habits than their East European counterparts.
David Cameron has called for a 'grown up conversation' about population growth and the strains it imposes on public services. He has linked this to a broader debate about the 'atomisation' of society related to the growth in single person households linked to higher divorce rates and later marriages.
Tory strategists believe that Gordon Brown's patriotic rhetoric has opened a window for the opposition party to debate the issue without appearing racist. The 'are you thinking what we're thinking?' message in the last general election was coded, but probably not subtly enough.
Conservative Party chairman [sic] Caroline Spellman has been careful to emphasise that the issue should be discussed, but in a restrained and sensitive way.