“Immigration is not a bad thing,” said Liam Fox MP today at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, “but uncontrolled immigration is.” That, writes Matthew Rhodes, is an important message for Conservatives to get across.
The key, according to the former Defence Secretary, as he released new ICM polling for British Future on public attitudes to immigration, is keeping the immigration that is good for Britain.
Fox was speaking at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Migration event, A migration policy fit for modern Britain, alongside Conservative Deputy Chair Alok Sharma, Don Flynn of Migrants Rights Network, Margaret Burton of Ernst & Young and former Tory MP Keith Best.
“There’s a clear difference,” argued Dr Fox, “between the numbers coming in and who is coming in. Numbers have blinded us & made the issue difficult.”
Some may be surprised to hear that the public shares this nuanced view. Fox released new ICM polling for British Future, which found that 61% of the public – and 70% of Conservatives – agree that ‘Immigration brings both pressures and economic benefits, so we should control it and choose the immigration that’s in Britain’s best economic interests’.
Only 24% said it was ‘bad for the economy and we should have as little as possible’. Seven per cent took the liberal view that immigration is ‘good for the economy and we should have as much as possible’. Most were firmly in the middle.
“The net migration target,” Fox added,” is wrong, stupid and nonsensical, whatever level you set it at.”
Catch-all targets fail to acknowledge the different types of migration and undermine public trust on immigration if they are not met. Fox quoted further new British Future research which found that 70% of the public, and 62% of Conservatives, “would rather the government delivered on a realistic target to limit the immigration that it can control, rather than a higher target that it may not be able to meet”.
Alok Sharma added that one category of migrants that the government should perhaps re-examine is international students. We should disagregate net migration figures and show them both with and without the inclusion of students, he said. Recent research from Universities UK and British Future found that only 20% of people consider international students to ‘immigrants’.
Winning back trust on immigration is a key challenge for any party that wants to govern the country. It will involve setting some targets and making choices about the immigration that we want. But the public are ready to make those sensible choices. “The key question for a modern immigration policy,” said Liam Fox to the conference fringe audience, “should be: ‘is it fair, is it reasonable?’”