The British have realized the benefits of immigration. It’s time for politicians to do it too Robert Ford | Rare Techy
For political veterans, recent arguments over immigration are all too familiar: dire warnings of crisis as official statistics show record numbers of people coming to Britain to work, study and join families, while a dysfunctional Home Office struggles to cope with the new. wave of refugees; a beleaguered government vows to crack down, but lacks the means or will to do so. All are familiar storylines from political dramas about immigration 10 or even 20 years ago. The political responses are also predictable, with social conservatives bemoaning the inability to once again make the cuts that voters say they demand. Liberals pick and choose subject, fearing that their arguments are doomed to fail with a skeptical electorate. All players are locked into the same old roles. None of them seem to realize that the script has changed.
One of the most remarkable but less noticed policy changes of the past decade has been the dramatic liberal shift in public opinion on immigration. The decades-long tendency to see immigration as a controllable problem is now rapidly waning. There is a growing view that immigration is a resource that can benefit everyone. Most now see immigration as economically and culturally beneficial, a driver of economic recovery and an important support for public services. Proportion of voters who say the level of migration should remain the same or growth has never been greater, even as migration has reached record highs.
The public is now in favor of greater recruitment of immigrants in a wide range of sectors of the economy, from the NHS and social care to fruit pickers and pint pullers. Some of the biggest positive shifts have been in low-wage sectors struggling with shortages, such as catering and construction. Voters see a reason for more migration in virtually every economic sector asked about. Only migrant bankers are undesirable.
Like all great changes, this liberal shift has many sources. Demographic changes are slowly moving Britain in a more liberal direction on several fronts – essentially, every year slightly more migration-skeptic groups are shrinking, while pro-migration groups are growing. Yet the changes of the last decade are too extensive and rapid to explain population shifts alone. Brexit may be another part of the story – voters will approve a post-Brexit points-based system that applies equally to all migrant workers, and post-Brexit labor shortages have highlighted the economic importance of migrant labour. The Covid and post-Covid period may also have produced a wider first-hand experience of the vital and often high-risk work of migrants, from the NHS and social care to transport and repatriation services.
There is no more moderate and pragmatic public mood in the government’s rhetoric. The Conservatives are constrained by their heavy reliance on migration sceptics, drawn to the party after Brexit by the promise to “take back control”. Fear of an anti-immigrant backlash locks down the party’s tough language and proposals, but fear of an anti-austerity backlash ensures they remain an empty gesture. The government needs migrant workers but can’t say it. Also, the plan for the Rwandan asylum seekers is clearly unfeasible, but no one in the government can admit it.
This approach is currently failing on several fronts. Voters have noticed a gaping chasm between conservative words and actions. Eight in 10 disapprove of the government’s record, an all-time low. Even those who approve of the Rwandan scheme see it as a gesture policy that is expensive and doomed to failure. Nigel Farage remains a more attractive option for migration hardliners, while years of draconian rhetoric have alienated voters who now favor a more moderate approach. The Conservatives’ reputation on immigration is in tatters – for decades they led Labor by a wide margin as the best party to tackle the issue. Now Labor is favored in most polls, the only consolation for the Tories is that most voters do not trust both parties equally.
A government in limbo and a warming public should provide opportunities for progressive politicians to support open migration. So far, Labour’s response has been cautious – balancing recognition of the economic contribution of migrants with calls for businesses to do more to boost the skills, productivity and wages of British workers. However, caution comes with its own risks. Strong language and vague policies can be cautious during campaigns, but problems can accumulate in government.
The Labor government, like the current Conservative one, relies on the contributions of immigrants to grow the economy and public services. In the opposition, the party must stand for the necessary reforms in the government. It has made a start by promising to make the current points-based selection system more responsive to changing economic and social needs and to destroy the costly, performance-based cruelty of the Rwandan scheme. Labor could go further, promising, for example, root-and-branch reform of the toxic “hostile environment” and offering a new deal for migrants living here with liberalized citizenship rules enforced by a faster, cheaper and more transparent migration bureaucracy.
Labour’s instinct to tread cautiously is understandable – immigration has ravaged the party before, the public is still wary, and the opposition’s already-held metropolitan seats are more liberal on migration than the countryside or small towns it needs to win. However, such risks can be overstated – the Tory voters most open to Labor are pragmatic moderates who see immigration as beneficial. The Conservatives, distrusted by voters and fearful of a Farageist rebellion on their right, cannot challenge the new centre. Labor has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the conversation on immigration. It may be a risk worth taking.
Robert Ford is with Marley Morris in the new report A New Consensus? How public opinion on immigration has changed was published by the Public Policy Research Institute
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words for publication, please email it to us at email@example.com