30 March 2015

Restoring trust on immigration – the manifesto challenge

View all news

A new ICM poll for British Future shows that 86% of people don’t believe that the government would keep it’s promise if a pledge to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ was made again. As the political parties prepare to publish their General Election manifestos, public trust in particularly low on the issue of immigration, Sunder Katwala offers some advice to the leaders and candidates of all parties when engaging in the immigration debate – be authentic.

Politicians are mistaken if they believe that they can become popular on immigration simply by saying what they think the public wants to hear. That strategy has been tried and found wanting: public trust has continued to fall, and voters are ever-less likely to believe eye-catching slogans that generate headlines but don’t seem to lead to change. That leads to the charge not just of out-of-touch politicians, but of inauthenticity too.  So each of the political parties needs to come up with its own voice and its own contribution to how Britain can manage migration, pursuing its political principles and agenda in a way that might take the public with it.

The Labour party has struggled most with how to talk about immigration, having been in charge as migration rose while trust in its handling fell sharply. Most people felt that Labour was too slow to respond to concerns about the pace and pressures of migration, and too quick to dismiss concerns as prejudiced. However, when Labour leaders have sought to respond with tough soundbites like “British jobs for British workers” the party has sounded inauthentic, risking becoming still more mistrused.

The start of King Street in Hammersmith. Photo: House of Hall
The start of King Street in Hammersmith. Photo: House of Hall

Labour is a poor substitute for a populist anti-immigration party, but the centre-left party does sound more authentic on immigration when it voices the social democratic reasons to address the pressures of migration, such as by addressing exploitation in the workplace, and being vigilant about impacts on wage inequalities, or discrimination. At the same time, Labour would naturally want to promote the positive contribution of migrants to the NHS, and to job creation in the economy, and for universities and science. The argument that migrants learning English is important for the communities they join, and good for migrants themselves, rings true from Labour voices too.

Labour is considerably more comfortable engaging with the policy dilemmas of managing migration than finding its voice in the public conversation. It is seeking to develop a pragmatic policy agenda, acknowledging pressures and benefits, and proposing a nuanced approach to the different migration flows. But Labour voices also need to recognise why a tendency to jump straight to a policy response can be too narrow. An understanding of migration pressures as only reflecting misplaced concerns about jobs, housing and public services can lead to an instinct to try to ‘change the subject’, as quickly as possible. Policies in these areas can help to address migration pressures, but Labour voices need to learn to be much more comfortable talking about how people feel about rapid social and cultural change, and to acknowledge how and when that change can feel unsettling, while remaining confident of its ability to challenge prejudice, to tackle discrimination and promote fairness for all groups. The importance of cultural identity in the migration and EU debates – in particular the recognition of Englishness – is still missed by too many Labour voices. 

Conservatives are inauthentic on immigration if they blame the sharp-elbowed middle classes for employing migrant labour, or bash business for betraying the workers. The Conservatives aren’t credible as an anti-business or anti-growth party, but they do sound like themselves when they praise the initiative and hard work of those who come here to contribute positively, while being strict on welfare dependency, and seeking to promote aspiration and social mobility across British society too. It is natural that Conservatives would worry about the pace of cultural change, and to uphold the value of national identity, the importance of integration across every faith and ethnic group, and the value of community cohesion at a local level. For similar reasons, it would make sense for Conservatives to actively embrace and welcome migrants who express pride in their adopted country, so that New Britons and their children share the inheritance and commitment to upholding British values and traditions, even as the demographics change.

The big Conservative manifesto headache is how to replace its missed target on net migration with a promise that can be kept. A recent high-profile front-page briefing from Downing Street suggested that the manifesto might even simply repeat the failed pledge, by claiming that a successful EU renegotiation could now deliver the ‘tens of thousands’ level next time around. That would simply be an exercise in denial and a recipe for repeated failure. Such a pledge would quickly fall apart under the most cursory media and political scrutiny, and the public simply wouldn’t believe it. If a government were re-elected on that platform, the likely outcome would be for it to become as mistrusted on migration as its Labour predecessor. 

Ultimately, the Conservative party’s core public pitch is that it is a serious party of grown-up government, capable of taking important, sometimes tough decisions in the national interest. Such a party can never outflank populists with ‘party of no’ messages: people won’t believe that its leading politicians believe what they are saying, nor have plans to back-up the slogans. The Conservatives therefore need to maintain a balanced message and agenda on migration, as David Cameron tried to do in 2010, and not to be pushed away from a moderate majority agenda in pursuit of the most anti-migration minority, who it is unlikely to reach.

Chancellor George Osborne almost never speaks about immigration. This strategic silence means that only half of the rationale for a balanced policy gets heard – the Home Office case for why migration control is important. The need to keep the migration that benefits the economic recovery, which the Treasury thinks necessary too, is rarely made nor heard. The Conservatives risk conceding the public argument to UKIP if they talk exclusively about the problems from migration, and never about the gains from managed migration too.

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. 

That a pro-immigration stance need not necessarily be any barrier to political success is suggested by the advance of the SNP, which looks set to make significant gains in the General Election. Scotland has a more liberal and welcoming public immigration debate than other parts of the UK: there is a broad cross-party political consensus on the benefits of immigration, including to meet future demographic needs. Scottish public attitudes are a little less migration-sceptic, than in England, though the differences in public attitudes are considerably less marked than the differences in discourse.  Scotland has been a comparatively low migration country, now seeking to gradually attract more migrants to Scotland. If the pace of change were to increase, it would help Scotland to maintain its optimistic and moderate migration discourse to pay more attention to constructive ways to manage migration pressures fairly, while continuing to promote a welcoming approach to new Scots, reflecting a widely shared commitment to an inclusive idea of national identity.

Curiously, though few have yet noticed it, it is UKIP that might yet face the biggest dilemma about its future approach to migration. Campaigning on immigration has been the making of UKIP, yet going too tough on immigration could yet be the breaking of it too. Yet this all depends on a question of authenticity too: what does UKIP think it is ultimately for?

Were UKIP were mainly interested in UKIP, its own public profile and share of voice in British politics, then there is a good argument that it shouldn’t change much at all. It has found a minority niche in British politics– and it is filling it successfully. UKIP’s current ‘party of no’ messages are pitch perfect for many of the most ‘left behind’ quarter of British society. There are prizes on offer to the purple party for articulating their frustrations and fear of change: victory in the low turnout, European elections; maybe 10%, perhaps even 15% of the General Election vote; a fair shot at half a dozen constituency races in 2015; and maybe a longer-term presence as an insurgent voice of northern opposition. But what that could not do is to get Britain out of the European Union. What is good for UKIP could yet harm the party’s founding mission and cause.

A British vote to leave could not be won by voicing the frustrations of the 25% who feel most ‘left behind’ by immigration, economic and cultural change but requires the support of 50% of voters. If UKIP made a political breakthrough while being perceived as a pessimistic ‘party of no’ or a voice of ‘angry nativism’, seeming to reject modern Britain, and failing to offer a positive account of its future outside the European Union, then it will make it impossible for UKIP and its ‘Better Off Out’ allies to win a referendum on British membership of the EU. This challenge as to how UKIP would need to change to stay true to its founding purpose has been put most clearly by UKIP’s first elected MP, Douglas Carswell. The democratic challenge of a referendum means that the populist outsider party has to think just as much about the challenges of reaching Britain’s moderate majority as those parties which want to govern.

This piece was previously published in “How to talk about immigration” by British Future



British Future’s latest activity on Twitter