When it comes to immigration the public don’t believe the government, they don’t believe the media, and they don’t believe academics either. No, this isn’t a surprise, but it does pose a problem if you want to have a level-headed debate about migration in the UK. This was one of the conclusions of a very thought-provoking seminar I went to at the Institute for Public Policy Research this morning, which presented some of the initial findings from research they had carried out through public debates on migration held in the Midlands. Many of their results were intuitive, but do pose challenges for the approach that the Government has been taking thus far.
Much of the current approach from progressives has relied on trying to bust the myths peddled by the tabloids, Migration Watch and the BNP, among others, but it just bounces off people, the ippr found. There is just too much distrust of statistics; no matter how bona fide and no matter how grand the organisation promoting them, the public just isn’t going to believe them. This isn’t about ceding the ground to anti-immigrant arguments, but accepting that if we are going to make a progressive case for migration, simply bashing people with the facts isn’t going to win it.
Another suggestion from the seminar was that politicians need to stop making policy announcements about migration. It doesn’t convince people that the mandarins have got immigration under control. If anything it suggests that there’s a bigger problem than they’re admitting and it reinforces the sense that the system isn’t working.
Instead, politicians need to do a very counter-intuitive thing for them, and simply create the space for a debate about migration. The members of the public who attended the ippr’s sessions were thankful for having been allowed to speak out on an issue which they had hitherto thought was a taboo subject. It may make uncomfortable listening for progressives, but when presented with a series of statements at the end of the meetings, nearly all of the groups were far more moderate about what they thought about migration than might have been expected.
The researchers found that once people had had the opportunity to get their worries off their chest and think through the issues, they were much more prepared to support the idea that migrants do contribute to the economy and that closing the borders wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing. This isn’t surprising either, but it does suggest that politicians need to face their public and instead of lecturing them about how migration is good (or bad) for them, they need to talk them through the process, take their concerns seriously and show that migrants can be a useful part of the community.
Finally, there was a feeling that politicians need to get beyond defensive messages on migration – i.e. we’re deporting failed asylum seekers, we’re forcing migrants to pay extra for public services, etc. – and focus on the benefits of migration which people understand: the huge contribution nurses, doctors, receptionists and cleaners make to the NHS, for example.
Discussing values such as fairness is important too – people in the ippr’s meetings were prepared to accept that if migrants work and pay tax they are contributing to society and deserve a fair deal. Similarly, as long as British people are given a fair chance to work and employment laws such as the minimum wage are upheld, the public are more willing to accept migrant labour than might be otherwise thought.
There is much misinformation, scaremongering and anxiety about migration in the UK, but progressives have achieved very little to solve any of these problems so far. Opening the debate to everyone and being more honest about the choices we face as a country is a no-brainer, even if it might be hard for politicians to swallow.