How should Lib Dems talk about immigration and Europe?

by Stephen Tall on October 12, 2015

We saw the wrong way to talk about immigration last week – Theresa May’s “awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible speech to the Conservative Party conference ” (© Daily Telegraph).

But what’s the liberal / LibDem way? One answer is, as Tim Farron has put it, to “be un-nuanced in our positivity about immigration”.

This reflects much of the thinking on the pro-migration liberal-left that the way to counter the mix of legitimate concerns and xenophobic fears is to challenge myths and fact-bust the distorted claims perpetrated by right-wing newspapers. The problem is that such an approach rarely persuades and indeed risks hardening the attitudes of moderate immigration sceptics.

So is there a better way?

That’s a question the think-tank British Future turned to just before the party conferences kicked off. Here’s what it notes about Tim’s “un-nuanced” approach:

Farron has a good case that it will make sense politically for the Liberal Democrats to speak up in defence of the EU, immigration, the Human Rights Act and other contested liberal causes, including where they may have to defend unpopular positions.

But his argument against nuance risks going too far. It would be a mistake for the party to go so far as to welcome or even to seek majority opposition to its positions, or to measure the purity of its principled position by the scale of opposition to it. Ultimately, that would be a far too unambitious agenda for liberals on immigration, when the task should be to seek to extend support, and to make a liberal case that most people might respond to.

And here’s the evidence British Future points to which suggests the party cannot simply rely on pinning its electoral hopes on those voters who self-define as pro-migration and pro-EU liberals:

Survation’s findings for British Future show that the party won around 12% of those in the pro-migration ‘liberal minority’, not much higher than their 10% share of the ‘anxious middle’ who hold more mixed views on immigration. … pro-migration voters were twice as likely to vote Conservative, and almost four times as likely to vote Labour, than to support the Lib Dems.

So if the idea we can regain our political strength by concentrating support among the existing minority of liberal-minded, internationalist, progressive voters is simplistic — AKA preaching to the converted — what should the Lib Dems do?

Well, the answer British Future gives is clear, and echoes the pitch I’ve previously made — we need to stick to the liberal mainstream, reaching out to voters beyond the liberal bubble who need reassurance. Here’s their conclusion:

The Lib Dems will undoubtedly remain a broadly pro-migration party. The party does not tend to seek reductions in the current levels of immigration to the UK. It is an advocate of EU free movement as a positive benefit of being part of the European club, positive about the benefits of skilled and student immigration from outside the UK, and committed to the UK playing a greater role in the European refugee crisis. It would not be credible for the party to claim to have a goal or plan to reduce migration.

A liberal and democratic party should, therefore, accept that it faces a significant and important challenge to seek to build up public confidence that the UK can manage high levels of immigration well, in a way that is both welcoming to those who come to contribute to our economy and society, and committed to a fair deal for existing citizens too. These were themes of the party’s immigration review, chaired by Andrew Stunnell MP during the last Parliament. The nuanced approach that the report took to the pressures and benefits of immigration should be developed, rather than jettisoned.

A commitment to seeking to rebuild public confidence in Britain’s ability to manage immigration better could be pursued by the party in three ways.

Farron could usefully acknowledge that there is a strong liberal case for ensuring that we have an immigration system that is both effective and humane. The party should speak up for the principle of protecting refugees, and be strong advocates of a welcoming approach, in a way that both mobilises liberal activism and appeals more broadly to the majority instinct that Britain should maintain its tradition of being a country which offers protection to those who need it. Combining the principled case for protection with an active interest in successfully promoting contact and integration at a local level would help here.

A party that is broadly supportive of the benefits of economic migration should prioritise practical measures to handle the local pressures of immigration effectively. Lib Dems should support the proposal to directly link levels of local funding for public services to population flows, so that the tax contributions made by migrants to the UK are linked to the provision of local services where they are most needed.

Finally, while Liberal Democrats have been champions of the cultural benefits of diversity, they have paid less attention to constructing a liberal account of what makes integration work. This could include the promotion of an inclusive sense of national identity, and an account of the importance of shared understandings of the responsibilities of common citizenship in our diverse society.

The Liberal Democrats may face a long road to political recovery after the shock of the 2015 general election, but the party does have some long-term opportunities in a society which is, over the generations, becoming gradually more rather than less liberal. A confident, broad and popular liberal case would set itself the challenge of preaching beyond the liberal tribe in Britain today. To do that, the party should recognise that it is possible to be principled, liberal and nuanced on immigration.

You can read Steve Ballinger’s full analysis for British Future here.