Politicians need to understand why the public thinks there is a conspiracy of silence around immigration, says leading pollster Deborah Mattinson.
Politicians’ responses to what they see as voters’ concerns about immigration are so often wearily predictable. There’s too much crowd pleasing like Gordon Brown’s British jobs for British workers pronouncement. Cameron has now fallen into the same trap of over promise and under delivery.
Yet paradoxically, despite all the noise, voters perceive a conspiracy of silence. This is an area that they believe they must not discuss, or, like Mrs Duffy, they risk being called a ‘bigot’. The debate fuels suspicion and mistrust – and means that opinion is too often dominated by misperceptions.
Politicians need to get to the bottom of why this public perception exists side by side with endless articles on the subject of immigration in newspapers, and debates on television.
Given this public feeling of “conspiracy of silence”, it is not surprising that the UK public opinion is more negative than many other countries. Recent polling shows that British people over estimate the number of immigrants in the UK by a factor of 3. They also believe the impact of immigration to be more negative than positive, when many other countries are more able to value positive outcomes.
Interestingly while the public in other European countries may poll more positively towards migration, actual attitudes to those migrants (for instance, racism in the press towards the Italian footballer Balotelli can be much more intolerant than in Britain) feel out of step with a modern, more integrated Britain
Yet people are disillusioned with the coalition Government’s approach to immigration. But they are also sceptical of the opposition on this issue. This is in part because of an enduring view that Labour must confront some of the grievances that people had in the dying days of its last government. Symbolised by Gordon Brown’s disastrous encounter with Mrs Duffy, Labour’s approach to immigration is one reason that it lacks the license to be heard.
Immigration has not always been seen in such a negative light. When Labour came into government in the late 1990s, fewer than 5% believed it was a major issue for them. Now it ranks second only to the economy. It is a ‘vortex’ issue: powerful and dynamic, sucking other issues into its swirl – not just jobs and housing but also health, education and crime.
But Labour’s strategists have spotted an opportunity. Leaks about the Conservative’s private polling suggest that voters are disappointed with its performance on this issue. David Cameron had initially achieved strong support for his pledge to cut immigration to ‘tens of thousands’ but now 8 out of 10 are dissatisfied.
Against this backdrop, Ed Miliband’s recent speech was measured and calm. It called for a much needed debate. It demanded an end to unkeepable promises. Rightly it took the public’s current views as its start point – without doing so he simply would not be heard. But it carefully put a balanced case, telling Miliband’s personal story as it did so. Demonstrating an understanding of how people feel as well as a willingness to take part in a grown up debate could be a big step forward in changing attitudes towards immigration – and attitudes towards Labour, too.
Deborah Mattinson runs polling company Britain Thinks.
Read what British Future director Sunder Katwala had to say about integration and immigration in Italy here.