How Lib Dems should talk about immigration

british future immigrationThis week saw the publication of an important report from the think-tank British Future called ‘How to talk about immigration’.

Its central thrust is that the majority of the British public’s views about immigration are more moderate, pragmatic and nuanced than the polarising debate often allows:

How to talk about immigration challenges both the pro and anti-migration voices to respond to the public’s desire for a sensible conversation about immigration.

It highlights pro-migration liberals’ tendency to dismiss public concerns as simply based on misconceptions and myths, or to try to ‘change the subject’ away from immigration altogether. ‘Myth-busting’ exercises can boost the morale of those already onside but they struggle to persuade others and risk actively hardening attitudes against immigration, especially as official migration statistics are widely mistrusted – because people don’t believe the system works.

There are challenges, too, for migration sceptics pushing for big cuts in numbers. Sceptics need to move on from “why can’t we talk about immigration?” to showing whether they have a plan, with constructive answers that can work for Britain today.

The majority of people want solutions, not divisive rhetoric.

It’s well worth reading the whole report (there is a very good summary document here, too). I’m going to pick out just two aspects from it.

british future immigration - 2

First, the racism worry.

Many pro-migrant liberals fear above all that the immigration debate is just a proxy for the prejudices of those who are, in reality, racists.

Some are; but many are not. And one of the quickest ways to stop those with concerns about immigration from listening to us is to accuse them of being something they aren’t. (See also my May article, “Label the behaviour not the person”: why we shouldn’t call Ukip a racist party.)

The report is very clear on this point: “It isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long as you talk about it without being racist.” It cites data from the British Social Attitudes survey showing moderate majority in Britain today holds liberal views on race, and rejects the views of a prejudiced minority. For instance, inter-ethnic marriage concerns just 15% of Britons today. That’s 15% too many you might say; true, but in 1993 it was 44%. That’s a massive, liberal shift in a relatively short timeframe.

Tellingly on the immigration debate, the key question for many of the public is how skilled immigrants are. By 63%-24% the public thinks professional migrants from countries like Poland coming to fill jobs is good for Britain. And by a strikingly similar 61%-22% the public thinks professional migrants from Muslim countries like Pakistan coming to fill jobs is good for Britain. However, most people believe that unskilled migrants, whether they came from Eastern Europe or from Pakistan, are bad for Britain. Such an attitude may well be wrong economically and/or morally; but it’s not racist.

Secondly, how should Lib Dems talk about immigration?

The report has a section offering advice to each of the main parties about how they should talk about immigration.

Its key point for the Lib Dems is that we should be authentic in our liberal stance on immigration; but should also take seriously the political challenges and work harder to build alliances with the moderate majority, rather than be quick to taint them for holding concerns we feel to be unjustified.

That need to reach out to pro-migration sympathisers who aren’t Lib Dems is a point I made last year when Nick Clegg dropped the policy of an amnesty for undocumented migrants — a policy this week adopted by President Obama.

Liberal Democrats are inauthentic on immigration if they mute their own voice and try not to say anything at all, for fear that the other parties are more likely to be in touch with public attitudes. Liberal Democrats are authentic when they do provide a liberal voice which speaks up for the positive cultural and economic contributions of migration to British life, and could do so more successfully when they acknowledge, as democrats, that they take seriously the political challenges of rebuilding public confidence for managed migration, and handling its pressures, so as to broaden support for the values of Britain being an inclusive, welcoming and fair society. 

Given their strong civil liberties commitments, Liberal Democrats, like the Green Party, should certainly remain a clear voice for protecting Britain’s core humanitarian obligations, and in pressing for these to be reflected in practice in our immigration system. The ‘moderate majority’ analysis of this pamphlet suggests that it would be a mistake for the party to measure the purity of its liberal conscience by the unpopularity of the principled and defiantly unpopular positions it can strike. That would risk making liberalism little more than a badge of political differentiation, rather than taking seriously the challenges of building the alliances and support to make liberal change possible – as it successfully did on child detention.

So the Lib Dems should work with civic movements to build support for reform, while constructively challenging its civic allies to help find answers to address the public, political and policy barriers to creating a system that is both effective and humane. Broadening alliances for liberal reform across civic and party boundaries is an important way to maximise the chances of influencing the policy debate in other parties, or making progress if the Lib Dems should find themselves once again negotiating over coalition policies after a future general election. 

As I wrote in the summer after Nick Clegg’s most recent (and not at all bad) speech on immigration, “We need to work together, across parties, to win support for humane, liberal policies which offer the country a more prosperous future.” There’s some sound advice here from British Future about how we can do that.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • A Social Liberal 22nd Nov '14 - 1:41pm

    How should Lib Dems talk about immigration? Might I suggest pointing out, over and over, the basic truths of immigration – EU immigration is a net contributor to the UK, that we need low skill immigration if we are not to price the country out being able to supply goods and services to any but the wealthy (and no, you right wingers, I am not talking about accepting the payment of sub minimum wages).

    Much has been said about the strain placed on our services – if there is a strain on them then we should be advocating increasing them and not accepting or supporting the closure of facilities. Indeed, we should be pointing out – again and again – that without immigrants the infrastructure of the UK would collapse. NHS without immigrant nurses and doctors? The city without immigrant bankers? Even our armed forces rely on immigrants to fill our ranks.

    What we cannot do is follow the other three parties and descend into an anti immigrant diatribe in order to counter the hard right rhetoric of UKIP. they might well represent a section of the working classes, but it is that section that in decades past cheered Enoch Powell and before him Oswald Moseley

  • Daniel Henry 22nd Nov '14 - 2:07pm

    Good article – I very much agree!

  • paul barker 22nd Nov '14 - 2:52pm

    While I agree with the general argument, there is no getting away from the fact that a big chunk of Voters are racist. Certainly all the really hostile responses I got on the doorstep in 2010 were about Immigration. Sometimes we just have to agree to disagree with Voters & move on.
    Theres a question of honesty, I am not going to lie to people, if some UKIP leaning Voters asks me if I think UKIP are Racist then I will reply “Yes”.
    Whatever we say should never try to disguise our belief that everyone is of equal value & that we should all be Free as long as we dont hurt each other. Competing for scarce resources doesnt count as hurting people.

  • Is this too far from what we’re trying to do right now? It fits neatly with our centrist positioning. Just look at the section on our website. In general I think we’ve made an effort to address concerns about immigration.

    However, in doing that we’ve failed to make the positive case strongly enough. I thought the most relevant part of the article related to the tendency to dismiss sceptics as racist/xenophobic/bigots etc etc, and I confess my brain often leaps to that conclusion. It leads to a weak argument. Instead, we should focus on boldly making the case that immigration can be beneficial, particularly with the ‘human’ side of people coming across the world in the pursuit of a better life by working hard to help our country.

    It’s hard to do that within the immigration agenda of the media/Lab/Con/UKIP but I still think we should be more brave and explicit about it. That way the pressures of immigration seem worth bearing. If we’re scared to make the case then the stresses immigration can place on our society seem to be for nothing.

  • I don’t usually agree with Paul Barker.
    but I’ve been trying to find tactful ways of saying exactly what he’s just said for ages. But it doesn’t just stem from voters or one social class.

  • Sue Doughty 22nd Nov '14 - 4:18pm

    A very timely piece. For a long time I have felt that we need to do more about immigration in terms of recognising that a lot of people have concerns – not in a racist way but generally feeling overcrowded. In the South East with the immense pressure we have on our housing stock the sentiment comes out as anti immigration. People want to know that we welcome the opportunities for people to bring much needed skills to our country but we are less happy with the albeit small number of those the come purely for benefits. People do worry about the camps at Calais and recent stories will make them more fearful. Hearts and minds do matter and Paul’s final point above about our commitment to equality is very important.

  • A Labour supporter 22nd Nov '14 - 6:34pm

    I thoroughly applaud the posting made by ‘A Social Liberal’ above. Racism is increasing dangerously and must be denounced clearly and skillfully. Having just read many disturbing comments at the foot of a major newspaper article, it is refreshing to know others are clearly stating their opposition to racism in clear terms. For the record, I have made my views known in Labour circles.
    Plse be aware that are asking for donations to produce a booklet to help change the political conversation around immigration. They have raised £1600 but need £5000. Might well be worth making a donation. Plse click on the article “UKIP: Help us fight back.”
    Well said Social Liberal.

  • Agree with others above, a timely piece.

    The need to transform the debate from the simplistic casting of the debate as pro and anti immigration into a more nuanced one is long overdue. As I’ve said before when the doorman says “the venue is full” we don’t call them a liar and a racist. By any sensible measure the UK’s population is way beyond what can reasonably called ‘sustainable’ hence we need to recognise the constraint and plan accordingly.

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Nov '14 - 7:18pm

    I’ve been saying the same for years. In an ideal world there would be no borders, but we don’t live in an ideal world.

  • one of the quickest ways to stop those with concerns about immigration from listening to us is to accuse them of being [racist}

    It is all a matter of judgement; if you try to talk about immigration to racists, they will not listen to you anyway.

    There is always scope to inflame latent racism by pointing the finger at those who can be singled out as outsiders, but it is a Pandora’s box which have given even the most tempted politicians cause to hesitate. The aim of UKIP is to reject the EU and in the process UKIPers hope to damage the EU. Immigration would be a side issue, just another wacky policy, were it not taken up as a fruitful means to UKIP’s ends.

    In such circumstances, the immigration issue and racism become virtually inseparable and no dispassionate, evidence based approach to immigration will assuage the zealots. No wonder Lib Dems stand aghast, no wonder that in extremis natural Lib Dem supporters would vote for whoever might prevent election of a UKIP representative.

  • Wow, I do not believe I have just read this

    So if you want limited immigration you are a racist well you call me names all you want I will say to you that attempting to bully people I AM NOT RACIST liberal my left toe

    You should be ashamed people have a different view to you call them names I will not lower myself to swearing on here but my thoughts towards rubbish like this is unpleasant

  • I think whole ‘Pro-immigration’ supporters always stereotype people is a stereotype.

    The truth is that whilst a small number may do as what is done in the poster, most are very moderate in their views and expressing the facts about immigration.

    However, it is convenient for the anti-immigration lobby to make out that they are the mainstream/single majority and that pro-immigration supporters are therefore stereotyping everyone.

    No, I am well aware that the majority of people are relatively moderate (if such a term means anything); however, there are certainly people out with racist and horrific or very misinformed views – and I am not stereotyping them by pointing that out.

  • Allan: Just to point out to you! we do already have “limited immigration”.

  • Martin

    Do we what is the number or percentage you refer too

    Or are you saying that people should not consider the EU and that’s only free movement

  • Martin
    There is always scope to inflame latent racism by pointing the finger at those who can be singled out as outsiders, but it is a Pandora’s box which have given even the most tempted politicians cause to hesitate. The aim of UKIP is to reject the EU and in the process UKIPers hope to damage the EU. Immigration would be a side issue, just another wacky policy, were it not taken up as a fruitful means to UKIP’s ends.

    Could you enlighten me how UKIP has aim to damage the EU they are saying leave agreed they say leave. They say leave after a referendum that they “hope” they would win do you agree with they say after a referendum? David Cameron is trying to give a 2017 referendum is he trying to harm the EU

    If giving people of the UK a voice in deciding the future they want is not something liberals could allow I would like to know why. You say it’s an aim to damage the EU total nonsense ! In my case I am probably pro EU but I do take extreme dislike that the people who live here do not get a say, the EU may like us to stay but it’s hardly harming them.

    Even UKIP say they will accept people from the EU but on points basis what is wrong or damaging about that.

    If you oppose that I assume you are totally committed that any EU resident can come here regardless of skills any wish or will to learn English or if it comes to the extreme terrorists . If that is your hope I still fail understanding how someone who does not want that is racist and I find it highly insulting. I do not wish to harm the EU, I do think we should have a vote it’s my country as much as yours my aspirations should have equal value to yours even if we disagree on methods

  • Sunder Katwala 23rd Nov '14 - 8:24am

    Thanks Stephen for this post setting out the challenge put to LibDems in the British Future report.

    A Social Liberal and Paul Barker look at the challenge of those who are motivated by prejudice to oppose immigration.
    – We should certainly be vigilant against racism. There is strong evidence that racism has dropped significantly – the biggest drivers being a big generational shift (If you were born after 1970, after 1980 or after 1990, you were more likely to grow up with at least some ethnic diversity as a normal thing; if you were born before 1950, you will have experienced it as a significant new) and rising education.
    – The research tries to quantify the extent to which opposition to immigration is racist, xenophobic or ‘rejectionist’, and finds good evidence to show that some of it is – and that most of it isn’t. About 1 in 10 Britons support statements such as there being a difference in intelligence by race; or that blacks and Asians born here are as British as other people born here. A larger group (25%) are “rejectionist” on immigration, in that they support shutting the borders entirely, and even express support for the idea that the government should insist all legal and illegal migrants return to the countries they came from. So that is a significant and rather noisy minority group. The pamphlet argues that it is both wrong and pointless to attempt to make concessions on migration policy to people who will never be satisfied short of shutting the borders or promising something impossible in the real world.

    However, it is important to note that most people are not rejectionists, nor anything close to it. Rejecting the rejectionists depends on building what we call the ‘moderate majority’. You can begin with the 1 in 4 people who are pretty liberal and comfortable not just with the idea of migration, but with the levels of immigration we have too, and who are certain they would vote to stay in the EU, quite liking free movement in principle and practice.

    But you also need those who are anxious about economic and cultural changes, and how we are managing them, but who are committed to constructive and workable answers, and opposed to prejudice, and sceptical about impossible promises.

    The media citizen has much more nuanced views than the rejectionists. They hold the following views
    – would reduce migration, selectively, if they could, to reduce the pace of change.
    – They would not cut international students, even if that limited how far the numbers could come down
    – they would not cut skilled migration; or job creators,
    – they would not cut low skilled migrants who work in care homes either.
    – They are committed to the tradition of refugee protection, and against scrapping our commitments.

    – They don’t know on EU membership, having not yet thought much about it, but are tempted to stay in a reformed EU, rather than to get out.
    – They don’t think the immigration system works properly, and would spend money to make it work better and more fairly.
    – They do want to see more done on contribution and integration
    – They have positive views of migrants who come here to build a better life for their families, and indeed trust migrants who have been here 15 years considerably more than they do any politician, whether David Cameron, Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage.
    – They would prefer migrants whom come to stay, settle and to become British (63%) than to go home after a few years (37%)

    So we conclude that the average citizen is a good judge of prejudice norms and how to protect them. And that liberals should be able to engage with the median citizen over the challenges of both managing migration pressures and securing its benefits. Assuming most opposition or anxiety is rooted in prejudice will prevent that, and isn’t justified either.

  • Sunder:

    it is both wrong and pointless to attempt to make concessions on migration policy to people who will never be satisfied

    At 25% this is not only a disturbingly large group, but a group that UKIP can draw upon as a kind of core vote so long as UKIP exploit this issue. This explains why UKIP would pander to racism, but it is muddleheaded and mistaken to be drawn into UKIP’s wake.

    As a thought experiment, imagine that a proposed solution to the pressures on London’s infrastructure and economy was to limit the migration of people to take up jobs and find accommodation in London, from the UK regions (where unemployment is higher) such as Cornwall, the North East, parts of Scotland, N.I. and Wales. Although it would be possible to try to maintain that the motivation for such a policy was not necessarily discriminatory, there is no doubt that such a policy would in practice be considered discriminatory. In fact anyone suggesting such a policy would be dismissed as a foolish crank.

    Allan: Of course free movement of labour is a core aspect of the EU Single Market (as are goods and services). I am surprised that you are not aware of the many UKIP voices who see the EU as an evil empire, comparable in their warped thinking, to the Soviet Union; it is true that there are others who say good luck to the EU, but we do not want to be a part of it.

  • Ibraham that is what people are doing they are kicking off because of the failure of governance of all colours in keeping up with population size. So many debates say people who want an end of imigration are plain wrong even UKIP say aok for imigration it’s numbers and filling correct roles

    I also know of no main party who says legal people here now should be sent away. I am very angry that people hang on bottom of vehicles for all we know they are from ISIS or terrorists it’s not acceptable that we don’t know who is here free movement is one thing no clue who might be in the country is not (at least for me)

  • The typical Lib Dem’s position on immigration is logically incoherent.

    It’s wrong, we’re told, to be anything other than unreservedly “pro-immigration” because look, there are all these economic analyses which show that immigration makes the country richer, so what’s not to like?

    Yet despite this, the Lib Dems as a party are not in favour of unrestricted immigration (see comments from Clegg I quote in the Thornberry thread). Why not? Why would we not want even more of something that is so good for us?

    The answer, of course, is that in principle the Lib Dem policy is the same as everybody else’s, even UKIP: we should have some immigration, but not unlimited immigration. An optimal level should be found. It’s not really a question of being “pro” or “anti” immigration; it’s actually just a technical debate about where we draw the line.

    At least, that’s how it should be. What we have instead is gross caricaturing of each side’s position and a totally phony pro/anti debate raging endlessly. For the last fifty years, this arrangement has suited liberals well because they have been able to kill all debate by characterising those who want to reduce immigration as racists; hence immigration has stayed high despite 75% of the population wanting it to go down. All of a sudden, that isn’t working any more, and liberals are seriously rattled about it.

    We’ll never have a sensible and useful immigration debate until both sides stop distorting the discourse with extremes. Liberals, by and large, do not want a totally open-door policy; but neither do UKIP want to “pull up the drawbridge” (as Nick Clegg keeps putting it ad nauseum, and wrongly). Everybody just wants to find the optimal level, and it ought to be possible to debate what that level is in a civil and respectful way. It ought to be, but for some reason it never happens. Liberals are every bit as much to blame for this situation as the racists are.

  • In my personal experience I’ve found it difficult to talk about immigration with LDV without labeling the discussion as Racist vs non-racist. I’m glad that we are now starting to put immigration into it’s own context, and welcome this new debate. However I would argue that we need to talk about immigration in a different way to what’s been recommended. I prefer that we work to lock in the benefits of immigration, as we do have the benefit that immigration does work to produce net economic gain. However we don’t have the cast iron guarantee that we’ll be able to say this year on year, and this makes the net economic gain difficult as it’s actually not a solid argument to those on the other side of the immigration debate.

    Currently the net economic gain is passed on to the richest in society, and if we care about the rich poor divide this is a section of immigration that we should be challenging. Business groups such as the CBI are in favor of immigration but we should be making it clear we want to pass on these benefits of immigration to the poorest in society (yes there is a bit of a robin hood message there…). When talking about immigration we should be making it clear that the money generated can be used for funding the NHS, and raising the the minimum tax threshold, and minimum wage. This way we can make immigration matter to peoples daily lives. With this identified I believe public mood can be used to enhance the benefits of immigration.

    Think tanks should also be developed in order to take about how the benefits of immigration should be dispersed within society, such as how migrants can boost peoples work place skills, linguistic abilities, and solve issues related to mono-culture in society.

  • Tony Dawson 24th Nov '14 - 3:37pm

    The really sad thing is that the stupid rules we have already are preventing a well-educated young Englishman I know from returning to the UK to settle from China along with his US-born wife. Of course, had he been Slovakian he would have no problem whatsoever in the same circumstances. The reason is that we have laws designed from a racist perspective to keep out relatives from the Indian subcontinent and Nigeria – and we don’t care if a few pink people have their family life destroyed by those same rules as ‘collateral damage’. 🙁

  • Tony: I, too, know of far too many people caught by this insane rules. Heck, I may, myself, become a victim of them because I dare to love someone of the ‘wrong birthplace’.

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