Myths and misconceptions: understanding public opinion on migration

14th June, 2014 3:26 pm

I appreciate John Denham’s thoughtful response to my criticism of his outlook on migration. But I’d still like to see John commit to not only listening to the public but to challenging and educating them. Because an informed electorate is essential to democracy.

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John makes the point that ‘real people don’t live aggregate data’. But I put this question to him: are people against increased migration really experiencing the impact of immigration on ‘a local level as a real pressure on local public resources’, as he suggests?

Let’s look at the facts. Rob Ford points out that when voters are asked about the negative impact of migration locally ‘only around 10-20% reports a problem’, but when asked about the impact nationally ‘around 60-70% say yes.’ Moreover in London, where the density of migrants is greatest and the impact of migration keenly felt, residents are more pro-migration than anywhere else in the UK; a finding which ‘holds even for white UK-born Londoners’.

The public’s anti-migration attitudes are, therefore, rooted in national misconceptions. These attitudes are often based on faulty “common sense” arguments. People assume, for instance that if more people use the same health services then we’ll get a poorer quality NHS. Or that if more people come here and work for less, there’ll surely be lower wages and fewer jobs. These assumptions ignore the myriad of ways that migrants  relieve pressure on public services. This is not only achieved by adding to the profit of UK plc. For instance, ‘approximately 30% of doctors and 40% of nurses [were] born outside the UK’ – without migrants the NHS would crumble.

John may be right that fundamentally attitudes on migration are  shaped by the principle that welfare and public services arise from contributions. But the facts around this are also skewed. While it’s true that in a small number of cases this principle is being violated, the vast majority of migrants do their fair share. In fact, they contribute more than most. For instance, an NIESR study (2011) found that tier 1, 2 and 4 migrants ‘impose significantly less demand’ on health, education and personal services than non-migrants. While an IPPR study conducted in 2005 showed that migrants have higher net annual fiscal contributions than non-migrants. Not only are immigrants taking less out of the system, but they are putting more back in.

If the vast majority of migrants are living the principle of only taking based on their contribution, then surely the solution is to tie up any loopholes.

The crux of the problem is public perception. The public do not know that, as John explains, ‘the amount of child benefit paid to non-resident children is a tiny proportion of the welfare budget’, or that migrants are less likely than non-migrants to use the health service. Rather, the public think that migrants are committing widespread, systematic abuse of our county’s generosity. This perception is fuelled by sensationalist newspapers and politicians keen to appear understanding of misinformed public concerns. This is self-perpetuating as the more the public are fed migration myths, the more they believe them and then note only examples that confirm their hypothesis. In turn, politicians and the press are discouraged from challenging public opinion. Instead they’re incentivised to be even tougher on migration.

Ultimately, what many politicians debating migration fail to accept is that the public is uniformed about the extent of migration, the financial support given to migrants and the national impact of migration.

If migrants’ impact on the UK was portrayed in a positive light and done so in line with evidence , then perhaps the public would not be so convinced that the principle of the welfare services – only taking based on one’s contribution – has been compromised.

As a political party, we have a democratic duty to inform voters of the facts of migration. This not only involves challenging the tabloid press and populist politicians, but the public itself.

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