Opinion: Is it possible to be liberal and popular on immigration?

In those heady days that followed the post-debate Clegg-bounce during the last election, one issue suddenly began to dominate on the doorsteps: immigration.

Spooked by the Lib Dem surge, the Conservatives and their willing allies in the press sought to deflate the Clegg bubble by returning to dog whistle issues, such as immigration.

Whether this approach greatly affected the final outcome is questionable, but there is no doubt it forced many candidates on the defensive. Rather than having an opportunity to talk about our positive policies we were spending time trying to counter the perception that we were ‘soft’ on immigration.

Worse, the one migration policy that had filtered into general consciousness – our brave commitment to an “earned amnesty” for illegal migrants – was almost impossible to explain credibly in the rushed context of a doorstep conversation.

As a candidate for Bournemouth West, I encountered lots of tough questions on voters’ doorsteps.

Those who raised immigration on the doorstep seemed to fall into two main camps. There were those who were concerned about immigrants ‘changing the way of life’ in their area. Many of these ‘cultural sceptics’ were quite explicit that they saw the threat primarily from one religious group – Islam – even though the Muslim population in Bournemouth is small.

But others were much more concerned by the far more visible (in Bournemouth at least) issue of East European workers. These ‘economic sceptics’ said that their wages had fallen because of cheaper Polish labour or that someone they knew was struggling to find a job while their East European next door neighbours were doing just fine.

Yet for all the overall negative tone of the debate, there were always indications that people’s attitudes to migrants and migration were much more complex. In Bournemouth, this came through most clearly in the issue of overseas students. One of the last acts of the outgoing Labour government was an attempt to clamp down on the numbers of ‘bogus’ language students. While popular with much of the media, Bournemouth residents who benefitted not just from language school employment, but also from the bed and board that foreign students brought, were clearly sympathetic to foreign students.

Fast forward to autumn 2012 and, according to a YouGov survey in mid-September, immigration remains the second most important issue facing the country after the economy. Meanwhile, the recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey found that more than half of the British population now view immigration as bad for the economy compared with 43 per cent in 2002. And just under half (48 per cent) regard migration as having a negative cultural impact compared with only a third a decade previously.

These bald facts, however, conceal a more nuanced view which offers some optimism for a party continuing to stake out a more liberal approach to immigration – and should give us better ideas about how to discuss migration on the doorstep. People remain positive about certain categories of migrants. The BSA found that more than 50 per cent regard professional migration as positive and this is true whether it from Eastern Europe or Pakistan. A comfortable majority – more than two-thirds – are also positive or neutral about student migration (albeit of high achieving students).

Age and education also make a difference. Just 30 per cent of those with a degree felt immigration is bad for the economy and only 24 per cent felt there had been a negative cultural impact. While these both represent an increase from a decade previously, the rise has been much less steep than for those with no qualifications. Rob Ford, one of the authors of the BSA study, has emphasised this polarisation is also true for age a point also borne out by the separate research from the Extremis Project which showed far right ideas had far less traction with younger generations.

There are some simple lessons here. First, we need to work much harder on the language we use when talking about immigration. The data shows that many sceptics accept that some forms of immigrant have a positive impact. We need to emphasise the contribution that migrants make as students, skilled workers, entrepreneurs, artists and sports stars – the Olympics having already greatly helped in the latter case. And we need to express this positive contribution at a much more human level – the economic language of increased GDP or job creation has simply not resonated, as the negative views on the economic impact of immigration show.

Making our discussion of immigration directly related to communities and the people who live there makes more sense on the doorsteps than quoting numbers ever do. People’s attitudes to migrants are often plucked out of newspapers, rather than based on their own lives. When asked to think about Mr X who runs the bakery who escaped from Kosovo or Mrs Y, the local churchwarden who left strife-ridden Zimbabwe, they tend to feel that these people are somehow different, and better than the cases in the papers.

Second, we need to be clear that our biggest priority for government is fixing the borders and enforcing the existing rules effectively. The UK borders authority is still not working as well as it should and we need to outline how we intend to improve this. People would be much more relaxed about immigration, if they were convinced the rules were being enforced fairly.

Third, we need to be realistic about our more aspirational policies. There is a good case for an earned amnesty. But unlike the US, where they have battling this issue for years, we are still miles from even starting a rational debate on the issue. We need to lay the foundations of that debate first before offering out opponents an open political goal by making it a firm manifesto commitment.

None of these offer an instant panacea, of course. But we can take some solace from the BSA findings which show that a young and educated cohort, which will only grow larger, is much closer to our approach than the overall polling would suggest. But just as importantly, using the building blocks suggested above, we should be able to carve out a sensible, pragmatic but distinctively liberal approach to immigration which has broad appeal.

British Future and CentreForum are hosting a fringe meeting around the theme of “Is it possible to liberal and popular on immigration?” on Monday 24 September at 1pm in the Lancaster Room at the Hilton Metropole. Speakers include Vicky Pryce, FTI Consulting, David Ward MP, Peter Kellner, Chairman, YouGov, Simon Hughes MP and Alasdair Murray.

* Alasdair Murray was the parliamentary candidate for Bournemouth West in 2010 and is a trustee of British Future

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  • Richard Dean 23rd Sep '12 - 6:56pm

    Random thoughts ….

    My impression is that you start from the assumption that Immigration is a Good Thing and your argument is about how to present this, for example by emphasising positive aspects and making use of people’s belief that some categories of immigant are ok.

    But immigration for some of the people you want – professionals – is possibly a Bad Thing for the couintries those people come from. It removes those professionals and their skills and their pressures for improvement from that country. A brain drain effect.

    Although an immigrant is certainly a competitor in the jobs market, he or she is also a new customer in the retail market. Even immigrants on benefits are creating UK jobs, since their benefits must be provided, so they are good for employmemnt in that sense.

  • Little Jackie Paper 23rd Sep '12 - 7:29pm

    OK – Thing with immigration is that it is the ultimate talkboard hobby horse. If anything will get people talking in strident terms this is it. Yet outside of the internet I tend to find (and, of course this is a personal observation) that there is a relatively strong consensus on a large number of points when it comes to immigration.

    That there should be a route for genuinely niche-skilled people to come to the UK, that there should be an allowance for genuine students (as distinct, I stress here, from graduates), that there should be a route for genuine spouses, genuine asylum seekers, that there should be no open door and that in too many cases the removal of particular individuals has been harder than it should be. I also see a consensus that there should be a greater level of ‘integration’ as distinct from assimilation on the part of immigrants and that there is some level of concern about culture. Motherhood and apple pie? Maybe. But I would hazard a wager that by and large I would not brook too much dissent here.

    The key word in much of my comment here is, ‘genuine,’ and of course that is a moving feast. To some extent this is a problem of legislation for motive. Most of what I have said is subject to some degree of interpretation. I am yet to meet anyone who thinks that my overseas wife should not be here, yet I am forced to concede that I am effectively asking the people to take on trust that my marriage is genuine. I can not pretend that concerns about marriage are entirely unfounded.

    We seem to be unable to get the detail of the generality right. What is a shortage area? Doctors and nurses keep getting mentioned, yet both are in large oversupply. That cardiology is oversubscribed does not mean that geriatrics is. We are now at 10%+ levels of graduate unemployment in engineering, IT and other subjects that are far from ‘soft.’ Is there a skill shortage or something else going on?

    My sense is that to a very real extent, this is not a classic left/right political issue. At least not on the generality. A lot of left/right hobby horses get ridden on immigration, but I simply do not get the sense that this is an issue where the differences fit the left/right mould.

    You raise in the article the question of a perception of deserving an undeserving. It’s not quite that, rather it is a question about where the boundaries lie. What are the real shortage areas, rather than what is most door-step friendly. Where are the REAL shortages in our economy? They will not always be popular nurse type things. How do we make sure that marriages are real? Surveillance? How far do we go in integrating people by requirement, notably on language? None of this is easy, and there will not always be agreement. I thought that an amnesty was an affront to people like my wife and I who went through the system in good faith, yet I concede that not everyone will agree.

    It’s not about deserving and undeserving, but it is deeper than whether broad-brush immigration is good or bad. It is a nunced debate about real detail and detail that will not always be easy. And it is not always about economics either, it should be noted. It is possible to be popular on generality, but probably not detail. But this is one where brutally a bit of unpopularity might make for better, wiser policy.

  • I think the comments from LJP are probably some of the most sensible I’ve seen when it comes to this debate.

    “.. we can take some solace from the BSA findings which show that a young and educated cohort, which will only grow larger, is much closer to our approach than the overall polling would suggest ..”

    The problem with that statement is that it sounds like you’re implying that the previous generations are somehow anti-immigration. Yet many of these generations opened their arms to Europe during conflict (heck one of my cousins (1x removed) married a Polish chap and he was accepted by the whole family). For these generations I think it is more a case of people playing by the rules, if they come legally then that is great, but cheats shouldn’t be allowed to prosper (this may be one of the reasons why LJP had no problems with people accepting his wife, he followed the rules).

    Regarding the effects of amnesty, you obviously have plenty of evidence from European Countries where this has been tried, Whilst correlation is not causation (as they say), when it continually happens then people will assume it is, even Poland reported (after it’s recent amnesty) that there may have been an amount of amnesty tourism. In order to persuade people to go down the amnesty route, you need to persuade them that the UK would not just become an amnesty magnate – something which I don’t think you gave enough thought to previously. You also need a very convincing argument that there is a real benefit for letting people “get away with it”.

    LJP touches on the employment side, but I would add that you need to make sure immigration isn’t just seen as a way of driving down wage costs, or not as an easy route to offshore jobs. The previous Government opened the way for companies to bring in temporary workers from overseas without much value being gained by the UK. To give one personal example, I was working on a project for a company that was centralising a lot of it’s IT services (as a contractor I hasten to add, so I wasn’t directly effected), the company used a third party company to bring in lots of people from the Indian sub-continent to learn the skills. These people have now gone back to India and taken the jobs with them, so they were driving down wage costs whilst here and their departure caused a loss of real and potential jobs when they left. At one point this seemed to be a fairly common tale in the IT industry, everything was designed to make things cheaper for the big corporations. You may also remember that some of the language used in the past by politicians would also lead people to believe it was all to do with costs – remember ministers getting up to talk about how it was now possible to get a cheap plumber?

    Immigration will never be an easy subject for politicians, but that may be because they are, to a degree, reaping what they have sown. So a new honest approach is needed where people who disagree are not labelled bigots, where there is a true (and provable) cost/benefit analysis.
    It will be interesting to see the results of the latest Italian amnesty as I believe that they have decided to do things differently this time (e.g. giving amnesty to those willing to testify against employers), perhaps that is one to watch.

  • The populist stand on immigration is illiberal. Those who are not too fussed by immigration are generally not exercised by the issue. Whereas those who are worked up by immigration are more or less unassuageable.

    On the other hand, maintaining pensions would be unaffordable without immigration and getting a pension is quite popular. However, I suspect that those who are worked up by immigration are unable to recognise the massive economic advantage of taking in young, educated workers (though Richard Dean is right immigration is costly for the countries in which immigrants were brought up).

  • Little Jackie Paper 23rd Sep '12 - 11:54pm

    Martin – If we want pensions then what we should be doing is having a system of pensions and an economy that provides for pensions. Reliance on attracting immigrants of a particular sort to provide pensions is most certainly not a good idea or an argument for immigration. It is exactly the same argument about importing doctors and nurses. There may well be shortages of, say, geriatrics doctors and nurses, but surely that is an argument for getting more UK grown doctors into those shortage specialties rather than relying on overseas people to provide care.

    ‘However, I suspect that those who are worked up by immigration are unable to recognise the massive economic advantage of taking in young, educated workers .’

    I disagree. I suspect that those who are, ‘worked up by immigration,’ are quite aware that immigration is not always and everywhere A 100% Bad Thing, rather they are of the view that present immigration practices are, on the balance of the situation not effective or at least should be reformed. They may be right, they may be wrong – I make no value judgment here. The point is that an awful lot of people will have an awful lot of different views on individual immigrants, as distinct from immigration per se. That is why populism on immigration is going to be very subjective.

    Take your, ‘young educated worker.’ What exactly does that mean? Do we need, say, a young educated engineer at a time when we see double digit UK graduate engineering unemployment. Do we mean a 40 year old with a global niche? How do we decide what talent we need. Banking talent? Does the question of dependents come into the equation?

    The article is right, I think, to the extent that there are lots of issues being conflated under a banner of generalised immigration that make for a debate where there is more heat than light being generated. But simply because there are contentious issues does not mean that we should simply obliterate nuance and nuance that will not always go down well in the court of public opinion.

    But where I would suggest that both the article and your comment go wrong is that you fall into the trap you criticise. ‘Immigration’ is not a broad brush in the way that, ‘young, educated professional immigrant’ is not broadbrush. I think that the broad consensus on the routes is there, it is the DETAIL of the routes that we need to thrash out. Saying that immigrant = bad is most certainly unhelpful. But then I can’t say that I am any more impressed by an argument that young educated workers = always good.

  • Alasdair Murray 24th Sep '12 - 10:09am

    Thanks for these very insightful responses. This is a debate we as a party need to have over the coming months and I hope this can help contribute.

    LJP . I take your point about applying even more nuanced policy but personally dont think it is practical and may end up having pervese effects. Countries that have tried to double guess shortages tend to get it wrong. Migration Points systems such as the one we (sort of) apply only work if you set broad horizontal criteria based on skills and proxy measures such as salary and then allow the labour market to clear.

    Chris, I agree on regularisation but think even before we get to arguments about amnesty tourism we have to be able to deal with a much more basic affront to many people’s sense of natural justice – well expressed by LJP.

  • Short answer it depends upon who you wish to be popular and seen to be liberal.

    Fundamentally immigration is about total population and sustainability, two subjects politicians seem to avoid.

    There are two major issues we currently face: providing for and assimilating those already here and what levels of immigration should we permit in the future.

    I suggest we need to keep a tight lid on future immigration whilst we resolve these two issues, otherwise for example we’ll find that building another circa 150,000 homes per annum for the next few years won’t actually solve the current housing shortage (or bring prices down as many like to predict).

    In some quarters, such decisions will be seen as being enlightened, in others as regressive etc etc.

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