Listening to people about immigration

When I wrote another Lib Dem Voice article a couple of months ago to share some thoughts following the General Election, I had one line in it that said we need to come up with Liberal answers to some people’s genuine concerns about how immigration has affected them, beyond calling them racist. Following that I was called racist myself and told that I shouldn’t be welcome in the Lib Dems.

So before this article I feel it necessary to say strongly, I support the free movement of people, and we should fight tooth and nail for it. In fact if anything, a freer and more open system that encompasses far more of the world would clearly be of great economic and social value to our country and our freedoms.

We cannot, however, deny that a large part of the electoral coalition the Conservatives have built, is around concerns about how migration has affected local communities. Many of these voters are undoubtedly people who in the past ten or twenty years, voted Lib Dem.

In many cases, particularly in rural communities where populations have increased by 20% over the last decade or so, there are very real issues. These stem from a lack of housing to take account of inward migration, a lack of investment in basic public services and a clash of culture and language in some cases, when previously entirely homogenous communities are changed so quickly. We should, of course, support the rights of individuals seeking to work and live in the UK. We should also work with communities to ensure that we invest to reduce the negative effects that some can see. Public service improvements should come alongside new migration, not in reaction to it twenty years later.

As liberals we should concern ourselves with the alleviation of poverty. We should seek to create a system where everyone has a chance to succeed with valuable and skilled work. Why, as liberals do we not work to alleviate the negative elements of a system that sees gangmasters bussing in hundreds of people, human beings, to live in overcrowded slum-like conditions, to pick vegetables for three months of the year? Why, as liberals, aren’t we fighting to create a system where businesses feel able to make serious investment in developing the technology to improve productivity, enabling one or two highly skilled operators to do the same work as fifty?

Obviously, there are always going to be industries that rely on human interaction, where technology will never be able to provide an answer, but where there is, we should be at the forefront. There is a positive argument to be had for fighting for a free and open immigration system and for coming up with liberal answers that address people’s concerns.

Ed: Please note that all comments on this post will be moderated. This is because articles on immigration do attract some fairly unpleasant people and we don’t want them on Lib Dem Voice.


* Michael Kitching is a Liberal Democrat Member, previously from 2005-2018, rejoining after the 2019 General Election - @mwkitching

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  • Paul Barker 20th Feb '20 - 3:33pm

    There is plenty of evidence, going back half a Century, that racism is strongest in those area with the least Immigrants (often places that are dying on their feet due to people leaving) & weakest where there have been most incomers.
    We depend on a small, overworked band of activists, they should absolutely not be wasting their time listening to Racists, just be polite & move on.

  • Paul Barker is right. The ward where I live, and where I was a councillor for many years, has the lowest level of immigration in the Borough, and the highest leves of support for Brexit and, in the past, for right wing candidates.
    Wonderful cosmopolitan London, where 41% of the population is BAME, as a whole welcomes incomers, whether immigrants or migrants from other parts of the UK. Anti-immigration sentiments are most commonly found in areas with high levels of poverty but low levels of immigration.

  • Freedom of movement is fine, but not if it allows a government to fail in its duty to educate its own people. Why train doctors, nurses, computer experts when you can call them in from overseas ? Where I live the education system is dreadful and a fair proportion of our young people can look forward to a lifetime of low paid work or days smoking dope on the beach. Is it racist to say I would love to see these young people in the rewarding and well paid job that our business leaders say must be filled from overseas ? At least give them the skills to compete.

  • Peter Martin 20th Feb '20 - 4:21pm

    “I support the free movement of people, and we should fight tooth and nail for it.”

    Are we talking about free movement of people worldwide or just within the EU/Europe? It sounds a nice idea but I don’t think any country in the world has completely open borders. Certainly the EU as a whole is just the same as any other country in this respect.

    There are procedures we all, apart from perhaps the mega rich, have to follow if we wish to move around the world. Possibly we could look at negotiating reciprocal free movement agreements with our closest friends and neighbours. But I don’t see there will be the slightest possibility of the wider public supporting the idea that anyone from another country should be able to come to the UK, if UK citizens aren’t allowed to freely move in the opposite direction.

  • Good on you, Michael K for putting your point of view and not bring cowed ss being branded racist.

    We need people to speak freely. And I get increasingly annoyed that in any argument people are branded as racist, sexist or homophobic. They may well be wrong but let’s argue on the basis of evidence. If we hadn’t have increased free speech than we wouldn’t have GPS, smartphones and many, many other things. GPS etc. builds on the brave work of scientists who dared face the wrath of the church often at considerable peril to themselves to advocate a heliocentric view as supposed to geocentric.

    The nation state is one of the most liberal institutions there is. As we sacrifice our money in taxes for out fellow countrymen (and women !) and because we are them. And this goes beyond our family, our village based on common national symbols and pride.

    Of course we should love our neighbour like ourselves. And to illustrate this Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. The moral of which is rather forgotten today. It wasn’t the upstanding priest that helped the traveller but the foreign rather disposed Samaritan. Of course today our good Samaritans are indeed often from different countries – the care worker, the nurse, the doctor. Let’s hope we can come together again as Europeans in the EU and also as world citizens.

    But as liberals we should not lose sight of the immense liberal benefits of the nation state.

  • Peter Martin 20th Feb '20 - 7:42pm

    Let’s take a look at the economics of a rising population:

    If the increase is 2% p.a then the government has to spend an extra 2% (of GDP) into the economy just to keep things as they are.

    Add to that the 2% that is necessary to meet our inflation target, 2% that we’d like for growth, 2% to support the trade deficit, and the 2% that we really should be saving to kick our reliance on overuse of our credit cards and we’re up to saying that the Govt should run a deficit, or at least be prepared to run, of 10% of GDP to keep things ticking over nicely.

    And if we don’t? The economy will stagnate, those who are struggling will struggle even more and start to blame immigrants. Those who are doing better will say that the problem is nothing to do with immigration, and make accusations of racism caused by a claimed deficiency in the educational standards of those lower down on the social scale. Especially if they dare do something as stupid as suggesting we leave the EU!

    Does it sound a familiar problem?

  • Listening to people has sort of become a euphemism for ignoring them. The point isn’t to listen, but to have policies with enough clout to gain traction.

  • Cllr Mark Wright 20th Feb '20 - 8:31pm

    @Mary Reid – support for Brexit and controls on immigration are correlated not with current level of immigrants but with the rate of change in the last decade:

    Places like London have high but often relatively stable proportions of immigrants. Those areas are not actually experiencing relative change any more. Conversely Scotland has very low levels of immigrants and low rates of change.

    Public concern about immigration as an issue in Britain strongly tracks actual levels of immigration:

    @Michael Kitching – your original article (and this one) was perfectly reasonable. Don’t be bullied by the hysterical mob, most of who are the same people who just pushed us into a ridiculous and unpopular policy platform that got us crushed just 2 months ago in an election and thereby helped Boris win a big majority.

  • @Cllr Mark Wright – interesting point. Thank you.

  • As a thought experiment, what policies would a UK government need to have if immigration was off the table as a means to solve problems? (if you want, you can imagine other countries have overtaken the UK economically due to Brexit and also opened their borders so we just can’t compete in attracting migrants any more given the British weather, reputation for racism etc).

    I’d say, that for the country to have a future in such a situation the government would need to:
    1) Much more closely gear courses to jobs to avoid skill shortages. Every person would be needed by society to do something.
    2) Accept that the wages for “jobs British people don’t want to do” at current market rates would have to drift up so that people do want to do them.
    3) Given the demographics, back 100% anyone willing to have 3 or 4 kids – rearrange society to make it work for parents – including enough housing, childcare / childminding options (e.g. directly after school) and enough government-paid parental leave to bridge all the gaps needed between birth and school.

    Sounds like a nice society to live in and removing immigration shouldn’t be necessary to create it at all. In fact, if you implement some of the above you might find opposition to immigration evaporates.

    Immigration itself is a far smaller problem than politicians who see poaching people from abroad as the solution to every problem instead of seeing their own citizens as the solution.

  • The government have said they’ll be encouraging investment into automation when they unveiled their new points-based system. If, hypothetically, a large swathe of jobs with low pay and/or poor working conditions are eliminated, where would people then go to earn a crust? I’m curious as to why this is, in isolation, billed as something that would ameliorate poverty. Employers will have no motivation to improve pay or working conditions if there comes to be more worker demand to do what available jobs there are out of sheer self-preservation. Andrew Yang saw UBI as the answer, but I don’t think it’s enough on its own…

    We also need to keep those doors open for people in in-demand roles like nursing who want to train but can’t afford to due to the loss of the nursing bursary. Our government-funded adult training and skilling is apparently 2/3 that of in Europe on average (Adult Skills Gap report, 2018) with a consistent decline over the past decade. The training given by employers tends to prioritise higher-skilled, senior employees, leaving the people who most need it in the cold.

    PS. Since Brexit is happening, I think that for good or ill the argument on FoM has been lost for a while…

  • Richard S – “1) Much more closely gear courses to jobs to avoid skill shortages. Every person would be needed by society to do something.” – and then combined this with pre-Coalition state-run university system free of tuition fees. You know, it is much easier to control the courses and curriculum if the state have control over the funding of universities and higher education institutions.

    Also, the Tories pitch Australian point-based system. Let us pitch the Canadian system, which allows Canada to get 300000 migrants per year while still ensuring that all/most of them are skilled, as alternative.

  • Steve Comer 21st Feb '20 - 8:56am

    We should not join the right wing in pretending that any nation state can isolate itself from world wide trends in migration. There is a lot of information out there from European and International agencies that deal with the issue that can help debunk the many myths around migration, such as this report, which also has links to the UNHCR etc.

    Unfortunately we are in an era where prejudice and small attention spans combine to create a poisonous atmosphere. But we have to counter fears with facts, just as we’ve had to do with the anti-vaccine scares that have caused so many health problems.

  • Mary Reid

    “Wonderful cosmopolitan London, where 41% of the population is BAME, as a whole welcomes incomers”

    It welcomes incomers that can pay their own way. Asylum seekers and immigrants with little money, who require housing and have little in the way of job prospects tend to get shifted up north.

  • @malc – I wasn’t talking about the mechanics of where people end up living. That is an important point, but not the one I was making. I was saying that people who live in vibrant mixed communities are far more positive about immigration than those who don’t.

  • Implicit in supporting Brexit is the need, at all levels, for people to step up their game… whether they were clear about that when voting for Brexit I have no idea but as they have voted for it…

  • Interesting article, thanks.

    This debate highlights the divergence between equality and equity. When you ask people whether they want equality, what it turns out they want (in the main) is equity. The issue is that the United Kingdom has (at least compared to the vast majority of the world) a wrap around health, social care and education system that can be accessed free at the point of use by anyone in the country, that is paid for by a much smaller group of people, namely citizens (and the ordinarily resident) via the taxation system.

    Where this grates with people is that they see a lack of equity, in that a truly open door policy would permit anyone from any part of the world to access this wrap-around system free at the point of use, without having to have made any sort of contribution.

    Now, before I get attacked, I will also make the following points:

    – many citizens/indigents take far more out of the system than they ever have, or will, have put in
    – many migrants put far more into the system than they ever have, or will take out
    – current rules require a period of residence before taking out

    Yet – there is still a powerful, visceral feeling of a lack of equity in having an open door to anyone for the reasons stated above. Any immigration policy has to confront that visceral feeling, and as we know, dry statistical arguments are no match for gut instinct.

    I would welcome anyone’s views as to how to address this, because I’ve got no idea.

  • There is a balance to be struck between the right of those living here and those wanting to do so. It seems reasonable to require a person or group coming here to achieve economic independence say within six months or be deported. It’s the ability to become economically free, not your wealth that should be the determining factor. We should aim to attract those who are likely to make an economic contribution to our country.

  • What a difficult subject immigration is but something about this governments attitude towards it is deeply disturbing.

  • There has never been any doubt in my mind that a majority of people fear major ‘uncontrolled’ immigration. Currently 70% want immigration reduced, but that is for many reasons, including the way that Brexiteers like Farage made this the big issue. There is no way at the moment that these people will consider changing their attitude. The proposed government scheme of control is now the key issue and it may or may not reduce immigration nor serve the needs of our economy. What happens is linked to our nation’s skills gap, which has greatly widened over the last 10 years. According to the Social Mobility Commission this is the fault of both government and employers. According to the UK government’s Industrial Strategy Council chair, last October, unless there is radical change, this will get much worse over the next 10 years. It is linked to the nature of our Education in early years and schools and in FE colleges, the bad implementation of the apprenticeships scheme (especially by employers), the big reduction in Adult Education and the lack of life-long learning opportunities. Remember also the talk 10 yrs ago of trying to control where immigrants settle and helping local authorities to provide for them, which is even worse now.
    All this suggests to me the link between various issues and I wonder whether our party policy-making is fit for the purpose of making these links.

  • Uncontrolled immigration can cause huge problems and is completely irresponsible. Those who call for it are entitled to their opinions but will never win votes.

  • John Barrett 21st Feb '20 - 4:39pm

    When Michael Kitching says ” I support the free movement of people, and we should fight tooth and nail for it.” I was surprised. Hopefully he will clarify exactly what he meant in another comment, as I doubt anyone would actually want to vote for, or support, a completely open door system which allowed everyone, who might wish to come, into the country. I also doubt there is much support for such a policy within the party or any party.

    Other issues we need to give more thought to include the effect on other countries of taking their trained staff, such as doctors and nurses from many poorer parts of the world including some African nations, who train them, often with the help of UK aid. To then have those staff recruited by the UK, USA or Australia cannot be the best way forward.

    The present government’s plan to grant visas to those on the basis of income above £25,600 show a complete disregard to the value of the work done by those workers.

    Just because someone earns below this level, such as a care worker, should in no way imply that their work is less important than someone who might earn above the threshold, but is employs in what many might call non productive industries, such as gambling or even what I would call “destructive” ones like the arms industry.

    We should support a system which values not just the worth in £ sterling that a job pays, but the value to the country in a range of ways which might be more difficult to measure, but would provide a more just system for all.

  • Mary Reid

    It’s perfectly possible to live in a vibrant mostly white community. Boasting about London exceptionalism is perhaps one of the reasons why Lib Dems are doing badly in many parts of the country. And I think there’s some evidence that “wonderful. cosmopolitan London” tends to be less tolerant of some-sex marriage than the country as a whole

  • @Gary J – I only speak about London because that is where I live. I am sure there are plenty more vibrant, multi-ethnic communities around the country. As I said above “people who live in vibrant mixed communities are far more positive about immigration than those who don’t.”
    And I am totally puzzled about the suggestion that Londoners are less tolerant of same-sex marriage. This is a bit of a non-sequitur, and not true in my experience.

  • Personally, I think if you live anywhere long enough it ceases to be vibrant and anywhere new looks vibrant. Let’s be honest, the reality of the London experience for the people who live and work there there is mostly going to work on an overcrowded tube, going back home on an overcrowded tube, spending sometime on facebook or whatever and maybe watching something on Netflix with a couple of glasses of wine. The people who really find London or any city vibrant are mostly tourists. I lived there for a bit and liked it, but I wasn’t wandering around feeling a sense of vibrancy after the first few weeks or so. I like living in cities. I don’t buy into the mythology of them as ideals of harmony and community, though. The best thing about them is actually that you only have to be on vague nodding terms with your neighbours because the transient nature of the set up means they change a lot and getting from A to B to meet up with people you do actually want to hang out with is easier.

  • @Mary Reid, whilst not specifically about gay marriage there is some evidence that suggests that opinions towards homosexuality in the capital differ to those of the nation as a whole. in 2015 yougov published a poll based on whether those people having been convicted for homosexual offences should be pardoned and also asked about overall acceptance of homosexuality. Twenty nine percent of respondents in London stated that homosexuality is ‘morally wrong’ compared to sixteen percent across the rest of the country. There are also more recent polls showing similar trends e.g. acceptance of a gay child. Speculation is that it is the very diversity of culture and values in London, and some other similarly diverse cities such as Birmingham that may account for the difference in opinion.

  • James Belchamber 23rd Feb '20 - 5:38pm

    An important part of this debate is distinguishing between people who are fundamentally racist and are interested in turning any concern about immigration in to an opportunity to further their ideology – and those normal, everyday people who literally do have concerns, which are legitimate, and which can be handled (indeed, they may have noticed something we’ve missed, and that can improve our argument and our policies).

    Calling the former racist is right and good. Calling the latter racist, instead of persuading them of our arguments, is wrong and bad. If we are to win the argument we must challenge the racists, and we must also bring on-side the people who can be swayed by their arguments.

  • Dilettante Eye 24th Feb '20 - 10:27am

    “An important part of this debate is distinguishing between people who are fundamentally racist /……. /and those normal, everyday people who literally do have concerns, which are legitimate”

    And yet this distinguishing seems quite arbitrary, which usually means ‘I don’t like what I’m hearing,.. Therefore it is racist’?

    Take this developed point of view and decide for yourself if it’s racist or just a statement of the bleedin-obvious.

    Tynan points out that in London and other major cities the attitude against homosexuality rises as diversity rises. This should be obvious. Given that some ethnicities ‘frown’ on homosexuality, it follows that as diversity increases numerically with those ethnicities then the anti homosexuality attitude will increase.

    Tynan points out :
    “Twenty nine percent of respondents in London stated that homosexuality is ‘morally wrong’ compared to sixteen percent across the rest of the country.”

    This seems to correlate with the advanced diversity of London ethnicity, which carries with it a higher level of people who, for cultural reasons, frown on homosexuality.
    Is it racist to point this out, whereby attitudes of social liberalism seemingly goes down, as ethnic diversity in any particular area goes up?

  • Michael makes the point very well except that when he refers to the views of “the people” he doesn’t mention where those views come from. Do those views of the people come from personal experience ? I strongly doubt it because it isn’t my experience as a Parish, District and County councillor over 30 years. The public have been fed these views by the Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph papers for many years before 2016. Along came Austerity and someone/something had to be blamed. Immigrants are an easily identifiable group. Goebbels said that if you repeat something often enough it becomes a fact which is far from saying that people are stupid. This is why Michael is spot on.

  • One effect of uncontrolled immigration is the impact on resources such as housing and services. The 5.5 million boost to the population between 2010 and 2018 has led to the following:
    2.4 million extra dwellings needed
    13,750 extra hospital beds
    3850 extra GPs
    Primary schooling costs £4700 per capita
    Secondary schooling costs £6200 per capita

    I leave it to you to estimate the children produced by 5.5 million immigrants and how much they add to the education bill.

    Since 75% of births are to immigrant parents, the population is further increased substantially. These figures are based on standard per capita data used for resource planning and available from NHS England, ONS, Nuffield and OECD.

    These are the facts about the population increase. Other factors determine whether we want to increase or reduce the current rate of immigration.

  • Here’s an idea; let’s ignore / downplan / dismiss the views of anyone who wants to see immigration reduced, let’s tell them they’re wrong and try to persuade them of the benefits of free movement instead. Because that’s worked well since 2010.


  • Paul Barker 25th Feb '20 - 9:26pm

    It works for me.

  • @Paul Barker

    (Lib Dems pat themselves on the back about remaining true to their values and not ‘giving in to pressure’ to support reduced migration)

    “Right, next question, why can’t we get more Lib Dem MPs elected?”

  • John Barrett 26th Feb '20 - 9:45am

    Brian D “Do those views of the people come from personal experience ? I strongly doubt it because it isn’t my experience as a Parish, District and County councillor over 30 years. The public have been fed these views by the Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph papers”

    As someone who also spent 30 years as a community councillor, City Councillor and as an MP, I would add that from the people I spoke to, some had very genuine concerns.

    Such as the person who was waiting to be treated at the eye clinic in Edinburgh with her children, when those waiting were told that they would be taking everyone who needed an interpreter first. Those who spoke English were all understandably ticked off at being told to get behind those who could not speak English in the queue.

    We make a mistake if we assume that it is only because “The public have been fed these views by the Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph papers for many years before 2016.” that made people vote Leave.

    For those of us who are relatively comfortably off, it is easy to become disconnected from the genuine concerns of those at the bottom of the ladder. If we then call them racists, or dismiss their concerns by saying that they have simply swallowed the propaganda fed to them, we will continue to remain disconnected from a large section of society.

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