A Positive Labour Narrative On Immigration

Only a few weeks after its launch, almost 200,000 Britons have signed up to the government’s scheme to host Ukrainian refugees. Yet at the same time, the Tories are pushing through the Borders and Nationality Bill which the UNHCR has condemned as unfairly penalising most refugees arriving in Britain. The Conservatives clearly calculate that immigration continues to be a vote winner for them and a source of paralysing difficulty for Labour; in the last three elections, the voters that have switched from Labour towards the Conservatives tend to be those who are hostile to immigration. But have the Tories now misjudged the public mood? And if so, what should Labour’s response be?

Progressives have broadly divided into two camps over Labour’s approach to immigration. The first camp believes public attitudes have been distorted by the hostile narratives coming out of the media and if Labour had the bravery to talk more loudly about the benefits of immigration, then attitudes could be changed. The other camp sees these views as more immutable, and therefore argues that Labour should either try to move the conversation onto different subjects, or actually endorse policies which will cut migration. But current data on public opinion about immigration delivers a slightly different message.

British hostility to immigration is not a new phenomenon. In the 1960s, between 80%-90% of British people thought there were too many Commonwealth migrants in the UK and, in the following decades, Conservative politicians repeatedly used the public perception that Labour was pro-immigration, to gain electoral advantage. Yet by the mid 1990s the numbers of people coming to Britain were low and few voters saw it as the most important issue facing the country. This started to change as the level of net immigration began to rise, in part due to the UK’s decision not to restrict freedom of movement from the Eastern European countries which had recently joined the EU. The percentage of voters citing immigration as the most import issue peaked in 2015 – at the same time as the number of net migrants.

(Credit: The Migration Observatory)

Yet over the longer term, hostility towards immigration has actually been decreasing. Since the post-war era, people with university degrees have tended to be markedly less hostile than those without. In the 1950s graduates were a tiny minority – now they make up around a third of the British public, and the number is rising. Ethnic minorities who (understandably) tend to be pro-immigration are also a growing proportion of the population, and every year more young people who have known nothing other than a multicultural Britain enter the electorate. For all the sound and fury of the anti-immigration lobby, especially during and after the Brexit referendum, the underlying demographic trends have been moving against them.

The EU referendum itself has had an impact on attitudes. Immediately after the vote to Leave, concern about immigration collapsed, presumably in the expectation the numbers of EU nationals coming to the UK would fall. This did indeed happen but because government policy has liberalised entry requirements for non-EU migrants, the numbers of non-Europeans arriving in Britain has increased, keeping the pre-pandemic level of immigration relatively high. The Brexit vote also seems to have accelerated the trend towards increasingly favourable views of migrants, suggesting that it was the sense that immigration was “uncontrolled” rather than absolute numbers that was partly driving hostility.

(Credit: Ipsos MORI)

So where does this leave Labour?

The Tory policy of ratcheting up of cruelty towards refugees has so far backfired; the Conservatives often poll behind Labour on immigration. Priti Patel’s focus on the Small Boats “crisis”, has simply drawn attention to a problem that the government is failing to solve.  Control over immigration seems to be more important to voters than the numbers of migrants arriving, and if Labour wants to both impose a sense of order onto a chaotic asylum system and help refugees themselves we should advocate setting up far more legal, safe routes for refugees to arrive in the UK as Beth Gardiner-Smith has argued.

The same kind of approach should be adopted to economic migrants. It is notable that other EU countries were always less worried about Freedom of Movement than the UK, but unlike Britain many of them have welfare systems where benefits are more directly linked to contributions, they often have compulsory ID cards and required nationals of other countries to register, meaning they could be removed if they were not paying their way. EU migrants were less likely to claim out-of-work benefits than British citizens anyway; putting in place these measures would have had relatively little impact on migrants, but help to reassure those who suspected that the new arrivals were a drain on the Treasury.

Ed Miliband’s “Control Immigration” mug represented the nadir of Labour’s messaging on immigration. It upset many progressives because it suggested that Labour was hostile to immigrants, but did not convince immigration-sceptics that Labour would do anything substantive to control it. Labour should now aim to do the reverse. There has never been a better time with a more receptive audience, to deliver a positive message about the contributions that immigrants have made to the UK both economically and culturally. As I have argued before, most British people are proud of our country for being tolerant and diverse. But at the same time, the Labour Party needs to adopt concrete policies – for example introducing ID cards and/or moving the benefits system to being more contributory – which deliver reassurance that immigration is working both for migrants themselves and for Britain as a whole.