Immigration: What UK Politicians Must Learn From the Hoover-Free Flights Fiasco

As an independent candidate at the last UK general election in 2010, it was only when canvassing started that I realised that, overwhelmingly, immigration was the most important issue concerning the voting public.

Oh dear, I have a feeling this will be my angriest post since 'DLA Disgrace' in September 2011. Hang on to your hats...

As an independent candidate at the last UK general election in 2010, it was only when canvassing started that I realised that, overwhelmingly, immigration was the most important issue concerning the voting public.

And, even worse for me, having taken the time and trouble to publish a 27-page 'personal manifesto' covering what I considered to be the most important issues of the day, I realised that I had not addressed the most important of all - immigration.

So it was that, at my first hustings, sitting alongside Labour, Conservative, LibDem, UKIP and other candidates the first, the very first, question the audience asked:

'What do you think about immigration to Britain and what would you do about it?'

Instantly, I was aware of a frantic shuffling of paper under the table as all the other candidates scrambled through the cribsheets supplied by each of their party HQs to find the relevant tab and spout their party line.

Me? I had to think.

Slowly, but with brain whirring frantically, I rose to my feet and said:

'I don't know how many of you have read or seen Alan Bennett's play 'The Lady in the Van'. To me, it is a metaphor for immigration. It is one thing to have a lady in a van park in your driveway for three months and stay fifteen years. But you can't have fifty of them, can you?'

So, I argued, immigration is as much to do with management control as strategy:

1. Define the numbers.

2. Control the numbers.

How so?

The Hoover Free Flights Fiasco

The Hoover Free Flights Fiasco is recognised as the biggest disaster in the history of the UK sales promotion business.

In 1992, Hoover was losing money and under pressure to sell off the excess stock that had piled up in their warehouses. A sales promotion campaign was developed whereby customers who spent over £100 on any Hoover products would receive two free flights to first, Europe, and then, disastrously, America.

At this time, the days before budget airlines, the value of these flights was estimated to be £600 - far greater than the £100 that Hoover invited customers to spend.

As we know, the UK public are not stupid. They were 'wowed' by the offer - and flocked, in droves, to their nearest Hoover stockist.

Comedy ensued:

Wedding couples were given up to six vacuum cleaners as wedding presents as their generous friends and family gave away the Hoovers and kept the free flights.

A Hoover customer blocked a Hoover service van into his driveway for 13 days - an action worthy of Alan Bennett himself.

'Instead of spending a little sucking new customers in, they spent millions blowing away their good name.' said the BBC.

'A major snafu of EPIC proportions' said the PR man.

'Hoover sucks' said disgruntled customers, as the company tried to worm out of the offer.

Ooh how we laughed.

From comedy comes tragedy:

The Hoover Free Flights Fiasco 'brought one of Britain's most famous brands to its knees'.

The damage to Hoover's reputation was 'incalculable'.

Three Hoover bosses were sacked.

In 1997, five years later, 'court cases threaten to open the floodgates to more claims'.

All of Hoovers UK factories were closed, ending a 50 year history.

Hoover's whole European division was sold to an Italian company called Candy.

Standing back from the comedy and the tragedy of this, what lessons are to be learnt from a more professional, objective analysis?

And what on earth has the Hoover Free Flight Fiasco go to do with immigration?

Well I can tell you.

In the trade, it is called redemption.

For, in the sales promotion arm of the marketing business, there are two key steps:

1. Define the numbers.

2. Control the numbers.

Haven't we heard this before?

Redemption is where, having defined the offer, a calculation is made as to how many customers will take up - redeem - the offer. In many cases, redemption is a comparatively low percentage of sales. Many customers don't see the offer as worth bothering about.

Thus, professionally speaking, Hoover's mistake was not only to make an offer that exceeded that value of the sale price of their product but also to miscalculate - disastrously - the level of redemption.

In simple business terms, it is a question of forecast v reality. And, as anyone who has managed a business knows, you get your forecasts wrong and you pay the price.

The Labour Government and Immigration

Two months ago, in November 2013, Jack Straw, who was our Home Secretary in 2004, admitted that throwing open Britain's borders to migrants from other new EU states that year had been a 'spectacular mistake'.

At the time, Britain was one of only three EU to allow free migration for workers from EU accession states including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Ministers expected up to 13,000 a year to move to Britain but, by 2006, at least 600,000 immigrants from East Europe had been let through our doors. In 2010 alone, the UK's net migration figure was 252,000.

But immigration is not just a European issue. Sir Andrew Green, head of the Migration Watch think tank, said: "There's been a lot of focus on EU migration. The reality is this - in the Labour years there was net foreign immigration of three and a half million. Only one in five of those was actually from the European Union."

Three and a half million?!

You what?!

The Coalition Government and Immigration

In August 2006, the Conservative shadow immigration minister Damian Green said: "These figures make it all the more urgent that the government takes an early decision and stops ducking and diving on the issue of Bulgaria and Romania entering the EU."

Did you get that?

The Conservative Party identified the problem in 2006.

And now we learn that David Cameron has slammed Labour's decision to permit workers from new EU members states to come to Britain in 2004 as 'a monumental mistake'. He made the comments as he announced plans to ban EU migrants from claiming benefits for the first three months after they arrive in the UK.

This was on 27 November 2013!

It gets worse. This week, in January 2014, we are told that the 'UK Cabinet is split on EU immigration'.

Isn't this all a bit late?

As anyone who has run a business knows, if you let problems fester for over seven years you will pay the price.

The Immigration Fiasco

Our politicians - all of them - have made such an appalling mess of immigration that they, as they themselves like to say, 'not fit for purpose'.

What is it about immigration that I'm not getting?

As a country, does immigration really divided us on political lines? Is there really a left and right view on this? Capitalism v socialism? White collar v blue collar? Private school v state school? What is all this? Call me naive, but aren't the good people of Great Britain more united on immigration than our Oxbridgian political leaders like to portray?

Do you know anyone - anyone at all - who wants nil migration? Not one immigrant?

I don't.

Don't we all know that millions of our fellow Britons live abroad; that most immigrants are honest, decent people who are happy to have here; that some immigration is fine, as long as the numbers are controlled - and that our political masters have mucked up again?

And why is this all about EU migration? What about our friends in the Commonwealth, whose languages, cultures and histories we share and who fought alongside us for the freedom for people like me to write things like this (against, as it happens, other EU countries)? Don't we owe them a debt of honour?

Have our politicians got a grip on all this?

Or have they shown that they are the last people who should decide these matters?

For surely, just like the redemption of a sales promotion campaign, immigration is a question of balance:

1. Define the numbers.

2. Manage the numbers.

It can't be that difficult, can it? First, you calculate how many are going to leave our shores in any given year. Then you get an independent economist to forecast the prevailing issues and work out how many immigrants you can admit by social class, by age, by profession, by country of origin. There are experts who do this kind of thing for a living and, if they muck things up, you can fire them.

It is very important that the people who police the numbers are accountable for their performance. Who has been accountable so far? How many people, like the bosses of Hoover, have been sacked?

Surely letting three and a half million people into our country by accident eclipses even the Hoover Free Flights Fiasco in its gross incompetence? Isn't balance the last thing we are going to get from our adversorial, divisive political system?

And surely, like interest rates, where Governor of the Bank of England heads a committee of non-political experts to i) define the numbers and ii) manage the numbers, it would be better to keep the politicians away from this key issue. All they would have to argue about would be the proportions of immigrants allowed in within an independently calculated annual total.

For when it comes to immigration, politicians aren't going to solve the problem are they?

Let's face it, politicians ARE the problem.

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