Labour’s new immigration policy: more moderate voices needed

The complex views of the majority on immigration are not always easily represented in opinion polls.

The complex views of the majority on immigration are not always easily represented in opinion polls

Almost everyone agrees that immigration is a major issue of concern for the constituents of Rochester and Strood and that these views will influence voters’ intentions on Thursday.

UKIP has exploited fears of uncontrolled EU migration. Both Labour and the Conservatives have also entered the debate, most recently with Yvette Cooper’s speech this morning.

In terms of policy commitments there was little that was new in the speech in relation to policy commitments. Cooper set out the Labour narrative that the party, if elected, would stop unskilled migrants from undercutting British workers.

A Labour government would ensure that the National Minimum Wage was properly enforced and that employment agencies be banned from recruiting abroad and not in the UK. Any company that gave a job to a worker from outside the EU would also have to offer a place to an apprentice.

But there were three aspects of the speech that marked a change in direction. First, Labour pledged to employ another 1,000 immigration officers. This extra investment – £45 million – would be financed by a fee on visitors from nationals those countries that presently do not require a visa to enter the UK: for example nationals of the US and Canada.

There are some doubts about how this system would work and whether the visa fee would raise the required money. But this commitment acknowledges that border control costs money. The public wants tough action on undocumented migrants but there is little comprehension that this costs a great deal of money. Nor is there debate about how much taxpayers are willing to pay for immigration control.

Second, the speech recognises that diplomacy and cooperation are needed to solve the problems in Calais. Cooper did blame the French or the EU, in a bid to court the Eurosceptic vote.

The third aspect of the speech that was important was the acknowledgement that the views of the moderate majority were being drowned out in the current migration debate. She articulated a view that is supported in opinion polls and in some new research from the think tank British Future.

The majority of the UK population have some concerns about migration, to a greater or less extent, but many people recognise that international migration has brought benefits to the UK. It is only a small proportion of adults who are largely hostile to migration. There are also very few people who are overwhelmingly positive about international migration.

Most people’s views lie somewhere in the middle. This was a point made in Lord Ashcroft’s Polls last year. The polling segmented the UK population into seven groups, based on their attitudes to immigration. Some 16 per cent of the adult population fell into a group called ‘universal hostility’ and another 10 per cent were categorised as ‘militantly multicultural’.

But opinions of the vast majority of people fell between these two extremes. They have some concerns, but also acknowledge the benefits that migration has brought to the UK, for example, to the NHS.

But the complex views of the majority on immigration are not always easily represented in opinion polls. Polling collects people’s first responses to an issue, rather than their underlying views, so they do not easily represent the nuances of public opinion. The over-reliance by the media and many politicians on polling means that the views of the moderate majority are not always understood.

As an example of this complexity, a few months ago I interviewed a parent who first expressed a concern that immigration put a pressure on school places. A few minutes later he stated a view that his children benefitted from growing up in a multicultural environment. He was not overtly hostile to migration, nor positive. Rather, his views were complex, acknowledging both problems and benefits.

Tomorrow British Future will publish an important report about this ‘moderate majority’. The report – How to talk about immigration (briefly)draws on three years of focus-group research in all parts of Britain. It offers recommendations about ways to promote a more considered debate about immigration that includes and represents the views of the majority.

At a time when the immigration debate has become increasingly nasty and polarised, it may offer a way forward.

Jill Rutter writes on migration and is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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