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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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.