Full report: British Future’s Liberal Democrat fringe

Posted on 25 September 2012

Separating out student immigration from net migration figures would be entirely compatible with what the two parties of government signed up to in the Coalition Agreement, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes told the British Future and CentreForum immigration debate at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton.

“The Coalition agreement contains a reference to a cap, but not to a number,” he said. It was Conservative policy to bring net migration down to the tens of thousands, but that numerical target was not a shared government commitment.

“I will be very interested to see whether that is delivered. It isn’t delivered, then we should go back to the text. It doesn’t say anywhere what the figure should be. We agreed to the principle of a cap. What the figure should be a matter of evaluation on an annual basis. You know our view is that that should be on a sensible basis,” Hughes explained.

“Very interestingly, if you look at the Coalition Agreement, it would allow us to have a different column for students”, he said, citing the language which was used to commit the Coalition to capping immigration in the parties’ shared contract for government. “What the Coalition Agreement says is that “We will introduce an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants admitted into the UK to live and work”. “That does not mention the third category, beyond that, which is that people come here to study, and not to settle permanently. So I think there is scope to win the argument,” he said, noting that student numbers would be fully reported, allowing those who wanted to to calculate the overall total too.

The fringe meeting’s title Is It Possible to be Liberal and Popular on Immigration? challenged the party to set out how liberal principle could be combined with the political challenge of securing public consent. It was the first of three events which British Future, a non-partisan think-tank, is holding on the public politics of immigration across the conference season.

Pollster Peter Kellner warned that liberal principles would not easily chime with tougher public attitudes on immigration. “My short answer to the question would be no,” said Kellner, President of YouGov. “But, as George Galloway might put it, no does not necessarily mean no in this case.” Though there was broad public support for reducing migration, the level of priority which voters give to the issue was easily exaggerated by opponents of migration, he suggested. “Immigration is not as salient as some pressure groups seem to think,” he said.“It comes high up the list of issues facing the country. But it tumbles right down the list when you ask how much an issue matters to you and your family”, said Kellner.

“My first thought was when have we bothered about being popular, for God’s sake. We tried that with the students and we got into a right mess with that,” Bradford MP David Ward responded, somewhat tongue in cheek. “And you have to ask who are you trying to be popular with?,” he said.

Economic benefits and pressures

The liberal economic case for the benefits of migration remained strong, economist Vicky Pryce told the fringe meeting. “I am slightly biased, being Greek myself, and having come to this country, and finding it an open place”, said Pryce. She argued that proper controls on illegal migration were important, but argued that the government’s cap on legal migration was “completely wrong as it doesn’t pass the test of integrity” and meant that a government whose first priority was supposed to be restoring economic growth had adopted a migration policy which would hold faltering growth back.

“The Office for Budget Responsibility is still clinging on to the hope that net migration will remain at the level of 200,000 even to maintain a very small amount of economic growth. The economic case is still there. It is still strong. What saddens me is that we are not making it. As a result, the UK is perceived to not want foreign students. The UK is perceived to not want Chinese tourists,” she said.

British Future trustee and former CentreForum director Alasdair Murray recounted his own experience as a LibDem candidate, contesting Bournemouth West in the 2010 General Election. Knowing the evidence of the general economic benefits of migration did not translate easily into having something relevant to say to a voter citing his personal experience of seeing the hourly rate for their job falling from £9 to £7, he said, while the party had to be honest about how far it was from being able to explain coherently and concisely to voters why it believed an “amnesty” was necessary and right to deal with long-term migrants without legal status.

But Murray warned the party against retreating from the challenge of securing public consent on migration in the face of hostile attitudes: “The temptation for us must be to think ‘let’s not talk about migration at all’ and apart from a few textbook spats over students, we haven’t done much talking about it. We seem to want to avoid it. But we shouldn’t – and by the next election we won’t be able to,” said Murray.

David Ward said more evidence was needed on what was driving patterns of employment, citing the example of a factory with comparatively well-paid work where 25 out of of 30 workers were from Eastern European. “We need to investigate that. Is it 25 out of 30 because the employers are right that the local community don’t want the jobs, or is it that employers are stereotyping the entire local community, in a way that could even be racist, if they want the Slovakians or the Poles who work hard, yet are also branding all of the local community [as work-shy] … We seem to have come full circle, in that it is often the sons and daughters of those who came across in the 50s and 60s and did the dirtiest jobs are often now those who would never dream of working in a factory yet who are also saying ‘they take our jobs’”, he said.

Proper controls and challenging extremisms

The panelists each argued that liberals had to support effective immigration control if they wanted public support for sustained immigration. “You can’t have a system that doesn’t have proper controls”, said Hughes.“Quite a lot of our policy is quite tough – as party policy, and not just coalition policy”, he argued, citing 2010 manifesto commitments to exit checks; increased policing powers at the border; and regional checks to make sure economic migration went to areas that it was needed. Hughes said that not phasing in migration from the new EU member states in 2004 had been “a big mistake and it caused much antagonism in Britain”. He also said he disagreed strongly with LibDem colleagues in the European Parliament who were critical of the British opt-out from the EU Schengen area: “I think it is really important that the UK is not a member of the Schengen agreement. As we are islands, I think it is important that we have our own checks at our own borders, becauseI think people are not going to trust the checks at the other side.”

“The British Social Attitudes also contains some really positive responses on people’s views about immigration to this country, when they are making a contribution to this country”, David Ward noted, while adding that “there is no excuse for weak controls on illegal immigration” – an issue on which he said his party could tend to be a bit “wishy-washy liberal”. He had “not heard of any complaints” about cracking down on abuses through bogus colleges.

“The key thing is not being a racist, and also proving it”, Ward said, citing Bradford’s refusal to take £1.4 million of “Prevent” funding on extremism, while the project was only Muslim-centric, so that the funding renegotiated to make sure it could also tackle the far right as well as Islamist extremism. He said that he would “fight to the death” for proper help for those who had the right to be in the UK, he had no qualms about cooperating with the border authorities over those who did not, even if that led to complaints about “dobbing in”. “I may still get called a racist by some in the Muslim community, but others will then say, ‘don’t be daft, just look at his record”.

Ward also spoke about the “shameful” treatment of Roma communities across Europe, a point applauded by the LibDem audience, saying EU efforts to address this had achieved “bugger all”.

Simon Hughes also said that both anxieties about immigraion and extreme views could be held by voters from different backgrounds.

“The people who are often the most hostile are those who were themselves immigrants a generation before. The most racist comments I have ever had is from non-white constituents who have clearly not been here very long either,” said Hughes. “There is also still quite a lot of education to be done with sections of the white population to understand that not everybody who is not white is an immigrant,” he added. He said that Southwark and Bermondsey had changed in recent decades from having “the most dreadful community stresses, where we lucky not to have riots and violence” to much greater acceptance, but that perceptions about fairness in housing allocations were the key driver of potential tensions now.

Authenticity matters

Peter Kellner warned that the Liberal Democrats would get nowhere adopting an inauthentic approach to an issue where other parties could always be tougher. He cited the Romsey by-election, which took place when the Sangatte asylum camp was dominating the news headlines, and where the Conservative campaign made this their main issue.This failed, because voters saw the campaign as cynical and self-serving.

“In the end, perceptions of character of politicians and the parties matter more than policies. So the minute you go down the road of appeasing public opinion, and seeming cynical about it, you would lose more than you gain. By sticking to a principled position, even if not one that the public shares, while dealing with the underlying fears about insecurity, then you would gain more than you lose,” Kellner advised.

The importance of engaging seriously with insecurity was also stressed by Alasdair Murray. “The risk is that we end up too stridently dismissing people’s concerns out of hand. We must accept that these are real fears,” said Alasdair Murray, saying that the party needed to “less abstract, and talk less about GDP figures, and that constructive responses to economic and cultural insecurities are an essential part of expanding support for the positive contribution of migration.

“If not fully liberal, we could then be a bit more liberal, and we could be credible, if not always popular,” said Murray.

British Future is holding fringe debates at all three major party conferences, to find out more about upcoming events click here.