Voters recognise the complexity of migration. It's time policymakers did too

The public recognise the benefits as well as the costs of immigration.

The prevailing view about immigration among coalition policymakers goes something like this: Britain has far too many immigrants, and we must take drastic measures to reduce immigration, even if these hurt the economy, because this is what the public demands. British voters are fearful of the economic competition from migration, and will only be satisfied by drastic cuts in net migration levels.  Those holding to the conventional wisdom point to polling showing that 70 per cent or more Britons believe there are too many immigrants in Britain, and that immigration remains one of the most important problems in the minds of many voters.

Yet this view is dangerously dependent on a very simplistic reading of public opinion. Take the belief that Britain has too many migrants. It is true that MORI's most recent poll shows 70 per cent of Britons hold to this view, but 63 per cent also agreed with this claim in 1989, at a time when net migration was negative and Britain's migrant population was orders of magnitude lower than it is today. Research by the Migration Observatory shows that public views about migration levels have been stable over twenty years, despite massive shifts in migration levels over this period.

We are told by those holding to the conventional wisdom that British voters worry about competition from migrants for jobs, even more so in the current difficult economic circumstances, and that they will only be satisfied by sharp cuts in net migration. Yet despite a severe recession and rising unemployment, the proportion of voters naming immigration as an important problem facing the nation has fallen continuously for five years, from 38 per cent in 2007 to 22 per cent in 2012. The coalition cannot claim any credit for this: the trend predates their policy of a "cap" on migration, which has in any event completely failed to reduce net migration levels.

This shows how misleading a narrow reading of public opinion can be: the British agree there are too many immigrants, but they have always agreed with this regardless of how many migrants are actually coming in. They say they worry about competition from migrants, yet they are less worried about immigration now than they were at the height of the last boom. They say they want migration levels reduced sharply, yet their concerns about migration have declined in the last five years even as migration levels have remained consistently high.

In a new Transatlantic Trends analysis, I build up a broader and more nuanced portrait of British opinion on migration, based on four years of detailed survey data. It contains many important lessons for policymakers. Firstly, while concern about migration is high in Britain, this concern is not evenly spread across the population. There is a large generation gap, which is reinforced by differences in the education levels and social diversity between age groups. Older Britons, who are on average also less educated and less likely to have any migrant heritage, are much more negative about migration than the young, who are more educated on average and more diverse.

The evidence here speaks against a simple fear of migrant competition driving negative reactions. The most negative views are held by pensioners with little formal schooling, who face no competition from migrants for jobs, and as are indeed most likely to benefit from migrants' contributions of tax to support the pension system and labour to support public services such as the NHS. Here is an interesting paradox: those who have the most to gain economically from migration are the most opposed to it. This shows that these concerns are most likely not driven by everyday personal experience, but by a general perception that British migration is not being well-managed.

Current government policy, which calls for a reduction in overall net migration, rests on the assumption that the public is only concerned about migrants as an undifferentiated mass. When your explicit goal is to get the numbers down, turning away a cancer specialist recruited to fill a senior NHS post is just the same as turning away an unskilled labourer coming to look for work. Yet when we break down public attitudes more carefully, we see that voters do not see this issue this way at all. The Transatlantic Trends data show that voters are highly sensitive to differences between migrants. Majorities of voters support bringing in highly skilled migrants, and large majorities support the recruitment of migrants to support the NHS and the provision of elderly care. On the other hand, British voters are very concerned about illegal migration and support draconian measures to ensure it is controlled.

A closer look at public opinion on migration shows the current regime needs to change. The logic of the "cap" in overall migration puts pressure on policymakers to reduce forms of migration they can most easily control, such as highly skilled migrants and students from outside the EU. Yet the evidence shows that voters recognise the contribution such migrants make to Britain, and support admitting them as a result. We need to move beyond a simplistic fixation with overall numbers, which is based in turn on a simplistic stereotype of public opinion as monolithically opposed to all migrants. Policy should focus on reassuring voters that their real concerns, for example about illegal migration and pressures on public services, are being addressed, while taking a more supportive stance towards forms of migration the public support. Demonstrating that the immigration and border control system is competently run - something the present government has dismally failed to do - would probably do much more to assuage public concern than turning away thousands of professionals and students, or booting out settled workers whose incomes fall below £35,000. Voters in Britain recognise that migration is complex, and comes with many benefits as well as costs. It is about time politicians did the same.

David Cameron talks to UK border agency officials in their control room during a visit to Heathrow terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rob Ford is a lecturer at the University of Manchester politics department.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear