How Lib Dems should talk about immigration

by Stephen Tall on November 22, 2014

british future immigrationThis week saw the publication of an important report from the think-tank British Future called ‘How to talk about immigration’.

Its central thrust is that the majority of the British public’s views about immigration are more moderate, pragmatic and nuanced than the polarising debate often allows:

How to talk about immigration challenges both the pro and anti-migration voices to respond to the public’s desire for a sensible conversation about immigration.

It highlights pro-migration liberals’ tendency to dismiss public concerns as simply based on misconceptions and myths, or to try to ‘change the subject’ away from immigration altogether. ‘Myth-busting’ exercises can boost the morale of those already onside but they struggle to persuade others and risk actively hardening attitudes against immigration, especially as official migration statistics are widely mistrusted – because people don’t believe the system works.

There are challenges, too, for migration sceptics pushing for big cuts in numbers. Sceptics need to move on from “why can’t we talk about immigration?” to showing whether they have a plan, with constructive answers that can work for Britain today.

The majority of people want solutions, not divisive rhetoric.

It’s well worth reading the whole report (there is a very good summary document here, too). I’m going to pick out just two aspects from it.

british future immigration - 2

First, the racism worry.

Many pro-migrant liberals fear above all that the immigration debate is just a proxy for the prejudices of those who are, in reality, racists.

Some are; but many are not. And one of the quickest ways to stop those with concerns about immigration from listening to us is to accuse them of being something they aren’t. (See also my May article, “Label the behaviour not the person”: why we shouldn’t call Ukip a racist party.)

The report is very clear on this point: “It isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long as you talk about it without being racist.” It cites data from the British Social Attitudes survey showing moderate majority in Britain today holds liberal views on race, and rejects the views of a prejudiced minority. For instance, inter-ethnic marriage concerns just 15% of Britons today. That’s 15% too many you might say; true, but in 1993 it was 44%. That’s a massive, liberal shift in a relatively short timeframe.

Tellingly on the immigration debate, the key question for many of the public is how skilled immigrants are. By 63%-24% the public thinks professional migrants from countries like Poland coming to fill jobs is good for Britain. And by a strikingly similar 61%-22% the public thinks professional migrants from Muslim countries like Pakistan coming to fill jobs is good for Britain. However, most people believe that unskilled migrants, whether they came from Eastern Europe or from Pakistan, are bad for Britain. Such an attitude may well be wrong economically and/or morally; but it’s not racist.

Secondly, how should Lib Dems talk about immigration?

The report has a section offering advice to each of the main parties about how they should talk about immigration.

Its key point for the Lib Dems is that we should be authentic in our liberal stance on immigration; but should also take seriously the political challenges and work harder to build alliances with the moderate majority, rather than be quick to taint them for holding concerns we feel to be unjustified.

That need to reach out to pro-migration sympathisers who aren’t Lib Dems is a point I made last year when Nick Clegg dropped the policy of an amnesty for undocumented migrants — a policy this week adopted by President Obama.

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. 

As I wrote in the summer after Nick Clegg’s most recent (and not at all bad) speech on immigration, “We need to work together, across parties, to win support for humane, liberal policies which offer the country a more prosperous future.” There’s some sound advice here from British Future about how we can do that.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.