Engage the People

If we don’t engage with people who oppose immigration, others will

I want to start this article by clarifying that I am pro-migration. That is, I want to see the UK become a country as open to people coming and going as possible – ideally, entirely open. I consider this to be the only Liberal position on immigration, and I need to believe that all of us are seeking to make this as much of a reality as is practical. We are all on the same side here.

I’m also someone who has friends and family who are directly affected by the issues around immigration. This debate is very personal to me, and what I share here is out of a deep concern that we have sound, practical policies that make our country a more open, friendly and liberal place for everyone.

We’re getting something very wrong in the debate over immigration at the moment. Entirely reasonable, Liberal-minded people are making the argument that we should not engage with people who oppose immigration. That, instead of listening to people who take this position, we should tell them that they’re wrong.

This is counterproductive. Moreover, it’s probably not Liberal.

Liberalism is trust of the people, tempered by prudence. There are people out there who will not be open to our message, who are at best not going to be persuaded and at worst will use the opportunity to “debate” you with ill will, and these people need to be avoided. However, we need to trust that the vast majority of people aren’t wedded to poorly-informed opinions about immigration (or, for that matter, any other topic). Most people hold legitimate concerns, they’re open to reconsidering them, and (most importantly) they’re not always wrong.

This has been borne out by evidence, in a few ways. Firstly, as the debate over immigration has raged on so bitterly in recent years, opinions about immigration have become more positive. This has been in a world of intense discussion about the issues, where Liberals have had to make their case over and over. It seems to be sticking.

Secondly, people’s concerns about immigration aren’t entirely illegitimate. Immigration does lower wages amongst the lowest paid, as an example. Lack of integration (distinct from assimilation) is still an issue which must be tackled (taking care to explain that it’s not the only form of segregation, and is being politicised). The F16 motion proposes solutions to these, and we have other policies that mitigate the effects in other areas (e.g. employment, housing), so we have a good story to tell on how we’re handling the real problems as well as a good explanation to ease people’s worries about the non-problems.

But, to handle these, we first need to listen. Most people aren’t racist – at least, not more racist than you or I and we need to reject the idea that someone is racist simply because they have concerns about immigration. It’s a redundant point – if the average voter is racist then we still need to win the argument unless we’re proposing to forego democracy itself.

If we don’t reach those people, engage with them and bring them on-side, we won’t win the debate over immigration – because opposition to immigration is a more “common sense” position. As with austerity, the obvious (and incorrect) conclusion is that when there are more people, there is less cake. Of course, we know this is wrong – but we know it because we’ve read and debated and learned.

We are weird – a subsection of a subsection, of a fraction, who take an interest and seek out debate and go on holiday to a conference hall. We’re weird because we hold Liberal beliefs actively and passionately, whereas many may not consider them at all. Those people still vote, and we need them to vote for us because of our immigration policies (and then support them when we win). We won’t do this by merely explaining our policies; we need them to believe we are listening (which is best done by actually listening!) too.

And, note the word “listening” – we don’t need to take orders, and we don’t need to provide the solution they request, but we need to listen to their concerns and then provide a policy that addresses it. Sometimes that will be education and awareness, as proposed in the policy paper.

Then, when someone comes on the telly with the “common sense” opinion, we need them to know better – as we do – and we need them to like us, and not simply consider us to be elitist lecturers.

This is why I particularly support the parts of the F16 Immigration Policy motion and policy paper that identify these problems (in the party and the country) and propose practical steps to tackle them. I urge you to do so as well.


* James Belchamber is Chair of South West Birmingham Liberal Democrats and runs the Lib Dem Digital forum.

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • I am perfectly happy to engage with people who disagree with me on immigration. It’s just that my definitions of “engage with” and “concede every point to” are different.

  • Sue Sutherland 22nd Aug '18 - 5:32pm

    James, I like your cake analogy. The problem is that over several decades people have been told that government resources are finite, just like cake, while the greedy have hidden lots of different kind of cake away so the rest of us can’t have a slice of their cake. Of course people will then believe that if there’s only one slice left for them if anyone else comes along they will have to share that tiny piece with more and more people. It’s a perfectly reasonable point of view but it leads to dislike of newcomers. Moreover it’s a point of view that powerful multi cake owners have encouraged because they will do anything rather than become a target of legitimate cake seekers.
    There has been much publicity about the Health Service suffering because EU nationals have been leaving in large numbers and I think many people are realising now that we need those people. This needs to be the basis from which we can argue for an open and tolerant society with enough cake for everyone.

  • James Belchamber 22nd Aug '18 - 5:51pm

    Agreed @Sue, and we need to counter cakeism. But cakeism isn’t racism, and we need to distinguish genuine ignorance from wilful ignorance; people who believe things that are untrue need to be distinguished from those who spread lies to support their racist beliefs.

    I truly believe that the majority of the population fall into the former category.

  • John Marriott 22nd Aug '18 - 6:45pm

    Some ‘Liberals’, perhaps not all, believe in an immigration open door. I think that it would be pointless for them to ‘engage’ with those who, for whatever reasons, oppose immigration period, let alone those, who accept its inevitability.

    As a former immigrant myself, first in Canada and then in West Germany in the 1970s, I have definite views on the matter. For whatever reason, lack of investment or indigenous perceptions of the type of labour that they are prepared to consider, to give two examples, we certainly need people from other countries to fill the gaps. To deny that is to have no understanding of how economies work.

    What I would say regarding immigrants taking ‘our’ jobs is this: nobody should be allowed a residency here unless they have had a definite job offer. As far as asylum seekers are concerned, anybody wishing to be considered must be prepared to have their application thoroughly investigated, either in their country of origin or, if they arrive here without accreditation, should expect to be held in a reception centre while their case is considered. If they fail to meet the criteria they should expect to be returned to the country from whence they came.

    This may not seem very ‘liberal’, particularly judging by the way the word is often used by many LDV contributors as a kind of defence mechanism that precludes the necessity of considering that there just might just be another way of seeing things. However, it would surely be worth considering as something of a compromise, that might win ‘Liberals’ more friends than enemies.

  • James Belchamber 22nd Aug '18 - 7:03pm

    @Dave: Did you read Andrew’s post before commenting? Literally saying that people with concerns about immigration are racist. My understanding is that most people with problems with F16 consider the language I’m defending to be an “apology” to racists (as you’ve suggested), which I disagree with, for the reasons I set out in the article. We should not pander to racists, and F16 does not do that.

    @John: I have yet to read a Liberal defence of restricting someone’s liberty to live in whatever country they want to, excepting temporary restrictions where that causes harm. I suspect that’s because there would need to be a systemic harm caused by immigration that cannot be mitigated (distinct from harm caused by immigration that can be mitigated, for example with integration policies and education about the benefits of immigration). I don’t believe such a harm exists.

  • David Evans 22nd Aug '18 - 7:41pm

    James, There are many “Liberal defences of restricting someone’s liberty to live in whatever country they want to,” which are founded on a different balance between the three fundamental values of Liberty, equality and community. They involve putting more weight on the community value than on the liberty value than libertarians do.

    As liberals there have been and still are lots of reasons to restrict an individual’s absolute liberty to move to live where they want, including prison, medical issues, enmity or public order. Indeed I remember not too long ago many liberals arguing quite validly that a certain individual should not be allowed into the UK because of what that person might say. So would they allow that person to live here?

    Quite simply, except to the intellectually lazy or feckless, there can be no absolutes, but too many like to pretend that there is. That is the area where extremists thrive.

    Liberalism has always been much more difficult than that, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

  • James Belchamber 22nd Aug '18 - 8:02pm

    @David I feel a second article coming on 🙂 thanks for calling me “feckless” and “intellectually lazy” BTW 👍

  • I’m in favour of more immigration to this country. Though I very much want the increased immigration that we do allow to be targeted such that (legitimate asylum applications aside);
    -it favours those who will contribute to the economic prosperity of the country
    -it hinders those who will bring with them social baggage that limits their integration into the country

    I think the liberal argument against open-door immigration is rooted in whether liberalism is intrinsically internationalist, and indeed whether there is a spectrum of internationalism. I’m inclined to think that liberalism isn’t inherently internationalist, and definitely believe there is a spectrum of internationalism, from soft, to moderate, to hardline. A soft internationalist liberal could quite easily not endorse open-door immigration.

    I think the issue around immigration that is less realised, is that all international comparative evidence shows that significant immigration to a country leads to lower attachment to the concept of a welfare state amongst the population (both native born, and naturalised immigrants). As immigration increases, the popularity for reducing welfare also increases, without exception. Some may say this is down to socially conservative media exaggerating “problems” of immigrants, creating an exaggerated perception amongst the wider population that immigrants are all spongers off state services. I’d argue that as a society becomes less homogenous and more heterogenous, citizens naturally identify and hold solidarity with eachother less. The less you identify and feel solidarity with your fellow citizens, the less you feel that generous shared welfare (paid for by everybody’s taxes) is something the government should be prioritised. For me, I’d happily trade off less generous welfare for more immigration. I imagine a lot of Liberal Democrats would be in a pickle about which one they would choose (and maybe take the usual Lib Dem approach of having their cake and eating it, oblivious to the fact it’s impossible to do so)

  • John Marriott 22nd Aug '18 - 9:36pm

    @James Belchamber
    The title of your article was ‘Engage the people’. Many ‘people’ – more than I personally am comfortable with – view ‘immigrants’, especially those, who come from non English speaking countries, with a certain amount of suspicion. It could have something to do with our living on an island – I don’t really know. So.. how do you engage with people? First of all, don’t assume that you have all the answers or that your way of thinking is the only way of thinking. My suggestions, imperfect as they undoubtedly are, were an attempt at breaking down the logjam.

    I like James Pugh’s ‘conditions’ to immigration and might consider adding a further one, namely that the immigrant is of upright character. I am aware that some of those arraigned before local magistrates for various misdemeanours often have a criminal record in their country of origin.

    I have absolutely no doubt that immigration, or fear of immigration, was the rock on which the ‘Remain’ campaign ultimately came to grief. So, unless you can find a modus vivendi that would satisfy all but the most rabid xenophobe, you are doomed to failure.

    I would lay odds that, if the EU could change Free Movement of People to Free Movement of LABOUR, given the UK’s existing opt outs, a whole chunk of Brexit voting Brits would switch sides.

  • David Evans 22nd Aug '18 - 9:47pm

    James, you didn’t think being a Lib Dem was easy did you?

    if you believe there are absolutes, then you can’t believe in balance can you? Would you allow anyone into the UK no-matter how evil they had been? Would you allow known spies for a foreign power to settle here permanently? And if so, do you really expect to get Lib Dems elected in any sort of numbers capable of achieving anything more than being superhero community activists?

    I for one would rather be a Lib Dem who got elected and achieved 1% more of the Liberal Democracy we all aspire to than be a failure and allow those authoritarians in the other parties to get elected and make things worse.

    It is easy to be an extremist and believe in absolutes, but please don’t fall into the trap that it is liberal.

  • David Evans 22nd Aug '18 - 9:58pm

    And even more please don’t fool yourself into believing it will be successful.

  • I really don’t mind people campaigning to reduce immigration. I think it’s economically damaging but if they want to pay that price well fair enough, just don’t complain when the price comes due. What I object to is politicians who play too the ban immigration theme but when they see the price change their minds. They have your votes, you who are against immigration but after they have got them, my they’ll change their minds. I mean you can see many a Tory changing their tune

    Liam Fox suggests ‘tens of thousands’ immigration target could be dropped
    Home secretary Sajid Javid recently refused to explicitly endorse the troubled immigration target


    Boris Johnson Reopens Post-Brexit Immigration Debate

    Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for an open approach to immigrants after Brexit to make sure Britain’s economic needs are met, reopening a political debate over migration policy.

    Prime Minister Theresa May has backed a target to cut the overall number of migrants coming into the country to the “tens of thousands,” but Johnson signaled he wants a more liberal approach.


    Well I suppose they’ve had the votes of those that voted for leave to cut down on immigrants. No point in pandering to them now, after all business comes first.

  • Let’s first leave aside asylum and spouse/family visas.

    I would suggest that on immigration, a sensible liberal policy looks much like that outlined in the paper. We can abolish the nation state and throw open the borders. I am not sure that is in the Liberal Democrat tradition. It is not an approach as far as I am aware adopted by any other nation state. And it is not liberal – we need a strong nation state to provide welfare, education, pensions, collective health care. To have rules about immigration is not racist, it is not anti-immigrant, it is not even anti-immigration.

  • James Bliss 23rd Aug '18 - 2:20am

    I honestly dispair at some of these comments, and am reminded how glad I am certain people aren’t my MP or candidate anymore 👀

    I won’t do a full response here because I’m currently writing an article of my own.

  • Steve Trevethan 23rd Aug '18 - 10:21am

    Might it be worth differentiating between “disaster” migration and “optional” migration?
    Ditto “wholesale” migration and “retail” migration?

  • Three articles supporting this paper (as is) – two were pretty heavy on Straw-Manism. The other explicitly said it wasn’t going to engage with crticisms of the paper.

    It’s not an overwhelming argument!

    So of course there are good things in this paper – that is true of every Lib Dem policy paper ever. The issue is with the other bits.

    The simple question is do you oppose the amendments proposed to this motion. And if so why.

  • Neil Sandison 23rd Aug '18 - 11:20am

    Whatever system of immigration we finally adopt it will have be rules based and legally defendable. So having an honest debate is in our interest as well as those we hope to represent .Outlandish comments on either side of the debate serve no purpose and undermine evidence based policy making .How can you defend a position without engaging with those who perpetuate fake news (usually imported from the far right in the USA and Eastern Europe ) unless we have reliable evidence to support our position and the public can see that we are offering a fair ,consistant and managable system of migration .The last government to do it on a wing and a prayer was Tony Blairs and i believe the outcome of the EU referendum owes much to that poor decision making .

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Aug '18 - 1:39pm


    I am glad you are attempting to talk not merely to the greater public, but those in our party, and this site.

    Nobody listens much here which is why I feel sad I wasted much effort , and imagination on it for years.

    I despair when, mention, as I have, that we have two decent parties, Green to the left, of us, Libertarian, to the right, who believe in more or less open borders and open prisons, and open markets, as the core of their philosophy, we who are more moderate have only one option, this party, and I was invited to consider UKI[P!!!

    The invitation came from someone who thinks it is racist to think that hundreds of thousands of white Europeans coming here in numbers we have never had, might be something we need to consider with regard to service provision.

    There is no reason why you need to justify having a policy every Liberal party in any country, would share, though, unlike you or I, there policy would be a little to the right of yours and mine.

    There is no Liberal party or social democratic one with a social liberal background, on earth, that has a policy of open borders.

    More open, yes. Not the same. More is not getting everything you want. It is getting some, and others who you disagree with getting some also.

    That is the essential difference between Liberalism, or Liberal Democracy, and Green-ism, ad Libertarianism.

  • Lorenzo,

    Hate to break it to you but your concerns about EU immigrants swapping us is so last year

    “it is racist to think that hundreds of thousands of white Europeans coming here in numbers we have never had, might be something we need to consider with regard to service provision.” are actually not relevant. why do you say that you ask well latests ONS figures

    “Net migration has fallen from the peak levels seen in 2015 and 2016 and has remained broadly stable since. Underlying this period of stability, long-term immigration and long-term emigration have remained broadly stable at around 610,000 and 340,000 respectively in the year ending March 2018…….

    Migration patterns for EU and non-EU citizens

    EU net migration continued to decline from the peak in the year ending June 2016 (+189,000) to +87,000 in the year ending March 2018, its lowest level since 2012. However, non-EU net migration has returned to a similar level to that seen in 2011, following an overall increase since the year ending December 2015 (Figure 2). We advise users to avoid looking at the latest year-on-year change and instead look at the broader evidence and longer time series following unusual patterns seen for non-EU student immigration in 2016.”


    So EU immigration is falling but immigration is rising. O dear O dear it would appear, if you have an issue with immigration the fix was always in the hands of our politicians and not the fault of free movement and the EU. Bless who would have thought that.

    Even brave Brexiteers like Fox are now backing away from reducing immigration, it appears our economy is based on picking up skills we don’t have from anywhere. If they can’t entice EU residents well the worlds their oyster and if you don’t like it tough. We should of cause tackle this by training our own people but that is costly and we like to do things on the cheap and blame others for the problems that brings.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Aug '18 - 3:15pm


    You do what is referred to in many of my posts or comments, not listen or look at a person or opinion, yet launch with a comment very know all in tone.

    I referred to the view of those who think to listen or look at concerns is racist. I did not nor do not say they are either right or wrong, as I do not think of people as a mass or swathe or mob, unless acting as one in group think or speak.

    I see people as individuals, some with many shared qualities.

    You are able to reel off figures. Great. Immigration from the EU is less because people realise we are not going to be in the…EU!

    That says little other than that fact.

    If we realise that people are mainly not bad, but a few are, we could have policies thus.

    Therefore wickedness could be punished with long jail sentences, nonsense lead to community sentences, racists condemned, fearful allayed, no more real need for tough or soft or open borders or prisons, as the moral and practical …meet…in harmony.

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Aug '18 - 4:18pm

    I agree, you have to gain someone’s respect before they even think of supporting you and one of the best ways to do that is to listen to them and see the truth in what they’re saying even if you disagree with the fundamental thrust of their argument.

  • Lorenzo,

    I get that people are worried about immigration. But like it or not people who have followed the dog whistle of vote for us we will decrease immigration have been played. Leaving the EU won’t decrease immigration, neither will voting Tory (there is I suppose one way it might but that would be an unintended consequence and I’ll deal with that later). The reason it won’t change is our economy is based on picking up cheap labour with the skills we need from other countries. Now when freedom of movement was available to us the cheap labour came from the EU. The EU doctor you might have used, the EU vet, the labour in the fields cheap and plentiful. Now that avenue is closing off off do we hear I cry from Fox and friends to tighten our belt and train our people, of cause not the cry is “We need to import more people from through out the world”. It matters not to them if the EU vet becomes a South Asian one, or the EU doctor a Latin American one or the cheap labour in the field comes from the Far East. The only thing that will change is the colour of the immigrant and the accent they speak with. Now the solution for our chronic need to, poach labour is two fold, train our people and automate the low skill labour intensive jobs but i see no plans to do this. We would rather import the skills and labour we need, rather than break our addiction to cheap labour. Now I’ll deal with the unintended consequence that might drive immigration down, if you trash the economy and make us poor, people won;t want to come here they’ll want to emigrate.

  • Nom de Plume 23rd Aug '18 - 8:50pm

    There is no need to engage with people. Brexit/ isolationism should be allowed to run its course. The problems created will take decades, if not longer to correct. Sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way.

    Personally, I will remain opposed.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Aug '18 - 11:33pm

    I dd not read this view in your comments, more of interest and rare here, thought you were criticising doing it as usual, from a more definite Liberal perspective as is now, yours a more social democrat worry about cheap labour, an at times, not frequent argument on this forum.

    A welcome change. I misunderstood you. I think this should get us smewhere more of interest.

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