The political debate on migration is emotive and rarely rooted in fact. So although I agree with John Denham’s recent LabourList article that as a party, we need to get our ‘facts straight’ on migration, we still have a long way to go. Labour needs an evidence-based migration policy that engages and informs the public.
Firstly, Labour is too reactive when it comes to public opinion on migration. We shouldn’t aim to tell voters ‘exactly what they want to hear’. By doing just this, Labour has already contributed to the publics’ understanding of immigration, which grossly overestimates the number of immigrants in the UK and the amount of financial support they receive (see Transatlantic Trends 2013 and Compas). This has resulted in Labour apologising for policies we shouldn’t apologise for and failing to apologise for those we should.
Consequently, Denham takes pride in the fact that ‘we reduced the number of unjustified asylum seekers’. But he neglects to mention the many legitimate asylum seekers that were turned into criminals by extending carrier sanctions or the stigmatising voucher system which was deemed ‘inhumane and inefficient’ by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in 2007.
In his article, Denham then responds to a common complaint that migrants put pressure on public services by apologising for allowing ‘a million Poles to come here’ (the 2011 census only recorded 579,000). This ignores the fact that these are migrants from the A8 nations that have, according a UCL study, ‘made a positive contribution to the public finances despite the fact that the UK has been running a budget deficit’ – an assertion supported by the Government’s own research (see Gilpin et al. 2006). What’s more, this same UCL study showed that A8 migrants were ‘59% less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits’.
The gap between public opinion and the reality show Labour must challenge public misconceptions. There’s cause to do so because research from Transatlantic Trends 2010 suggested that voters, particularly in the UK, may even respond positively when their opinions are challenged by robust data.
Denham is also wrong to underplay the link between anti-immigrant sentiment and race relations. Of course, you can be against migration and anti-racist. But there are many who use anti-immigrant sentiment as a vehicle for racism and, in particular, Islamophobia. For instance, research from Chatham House demonstrates how far-right parties across Europe have ‘expanded their anti-immigrant campaigns to include a more specific form of hostility towards settled Muslim communities’. We need to make it clear that there is no room for racism in the debate on migration. This can’t be achieved simply by accepting that some UKIP voters are racist and moving on.
With less than a year to go until the general election, the above might look like electoral suicide, especially given the perception that Labour lost votes in the last election due to migration. However, Demos commissioned a poll after the last election, which indicated that immigration had fairly small impact on public support for political parties at best. And trailing in the polls on migration hasn’t stopped Labour posting a sizeable lead over the Conservatives. Peter Kellner’s analysis also suggests that despite the strength of views on immigration, it only has an indirect impact for the vast majority of the electorate in deciding how they will vote in a general election. Such data indicates that Labour have room to be brave on immigration and actually begin to shape public opinion.
Instead of cowering in the face of public opinion, Labour need to lead the way by engaging, challenging and informing the public through an evidence-based political debate. Instead of ignoring the clear racism of some anti-migration arguments, we need to tackle it head on. These changes do not need to be a long-term aspiration but can begin now as an electorally viable strategy.