14 March 2014

We ask politicians: can trust be restored on immigration?

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“I’m quite used to having good LibDem policies stolen by Labour and the Tories,” said Liberal Democrat MP Andrew Stunnell at British Future and Ipsos MORI’s event on trust in the migration debate last night. “It doesn’t normally happen with Ukip.” Indeed not, but rare as it is, purple and yellow had found some common ground. Tim Aker, head of policy for the UK Independence Party, had just endorsed Stunnell’s proposal that immigration should be subject to an annual debate in the House of Commons. Migration policy ought to be treated like economic policy: regularly explained, adapted to changing circumstances and properly scrutinised by Parliament, writes Henry Hill.

Stunnell and Aker were joined on the panel by Kulveer Ranger and Jessica Asato, candidates respectively for the Conservatives and Labour, and Bobby Duffy from Ipsos MORI. We gathered them to discuss an important question: can the political classes win back the public’s trust on the immigration debate?

It wasn’t all bad news. Years of having immigration front and centre in public debate has led to a sharp decrease in the number of people who feel that we’re not talking enough about it. Although at 43% the dissatisfied are still the largest share of respondents (down from 62% in 2011), they are now outnumbered by those who are either happy with the current level of discourse (28%) or think the topic is being discussed too much (26%) – up dramatically from 20% and 11% respectively three years ago.

But if the public are increasingly happy with the level of debate, some of the panel had deep concerns about its tone. Both Ranger and Asato criticised politicians and the media for indulging in counter-productive rhetoric which fuelled public anxiety.

Ranger was particularly damning of the Home Office’s infamous ‘Go Home’ vans, saying: “It was a mistake. We have to be more sensitive. It was a despicable way of providing a message. That blunt tool was inappropriate.”

Finding the appropriate way to address public concern is critical to success. According to Duffy, the two most popular reasons people gave for over-estimating the proportion of Brits who are foreign-born were based on mistrust. Either they felt that illegal immigrants weren’t being counted and thus weren’t included in the figures, or they thought the pollster was flat-out lying to them. These ranked well above more obvious choices such as personal experience or media influence.

The consensus on the panel was that the blame for this loss of faith could not be laid at the feet of any single party. Labour’s initial, woefully low estimates of the number of people coming to the UK coincide with the sharp initial rise in public concern about migration in the early 2000s. But failure to deliver on tough-sounding policies like the government’s net migration pledge continue to undermine public confidence. For example, more than 80% of those polled supported the reduction of net migration to the tens of thousands, but just as many did not believe it would happen.

Asato argued that simply apologising to the public was not the solution – engaging with public concerns was key. “It’s about listening to people, to their anxieties about housing and about jobs,” she explained. “People feel that their communities have changed rapidly and that they haven’t had a say.”

This view was queried by a member of the audience, but Stunnell argued that acknowledging these concerns was not the same as agreeing with them. Brandishing economic statistics at people discomfited by rapid communal change was not, by general consensus, a productive strategy.

Tim Aker took pains to spell out that Ukip was not “anti-immigration”, but a strong advocate of what he termed ‘controlled migration’. In his main speech, Aker claimed, “We want to give immigration a good name in this country again,” and argued that secure borders and an Australian-style points system would help to assuage public concerns about migration and thus reduce suspicion and hostility directed towards migrants.

Here again the meeting witnessed an unlikely meeting of minds, with Liberal Democrat Stunnell agreeing that, whilst it was not his natural territory as a liberal and disagreeing strongly with Ukip’s belief that it required leaving the EU, secure borders were vital to regaining public trust on migration.

The panellists differed on much, as you would expect: policy specifics, for example, or the exact portion of blame each party deserved for the present state of affairs. Yet all agreed that public trust in politicians’ handling of migration can be restored, provided they treat public concerns with respect, resist the temptation to ‘talk tough’ and over-promise, and make some visible progress in addressing the system’s failings.

Only then will the positive story of migration – of entrepreneurs and public servants, of economic growth and Olympic success – stand a better chance of a fair hearing.

Henry Hill is an intern at British Future. 

Watch our clip from the event above.

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