How to lose the battle and win the war for immigration

Skilled migration isn't that much better economically – but it's a lot easier to get through politically.

Sunny Hundal points out that the public are pretty solidly anti-immigration, and Chris Dillow gets in a funk about it:

Several things make me fear that an evidence-based approach won't suffice to change people's minds:

  • Hostility to immigration does not come merely from the minority who lose out in the labour market. People from higher social classes and the retired are as opposed to immigration as others.
  • There's little hope of attitudes changing as older "bigots" die off. The Yougov poll found that 68% of 18-24 year-olds support the Tories' immigration cap.
  • Antipathy to immigration has been pretty stable (in terms of polling if not the violence of its expression) since at least the 1960s.
  • There's an echo mechanism which helps stabilize opinion at a hostile level. Politicians and the media, knowing the public are opposed to immigration, tell them what they want to hear and - a few bromides aside - don't challenge their opinion.

This, more than the economic arguments, is why the focus on "high-skilled immigration" is important.

After all, economically, immigration is good. One of the easiest shortcuts to growth is population growth, especially when that population growth comes in the form of people who arrive able to start working immediately. The canard about "benefit scrounging immigrants" is just that; and given many migrants return home long before retirement, even benefits which they may actually be eligible for aren't claimed.

Insofar as there are negative economic repercussions from such a policy, they would mainly limited to a potential downwards squeeze on low-skilled wages. But, as Dillow points out, we already have an answer for policies which help the nation overall while hurting those worst off: redistribution of wealth. And living wage policies, and stronger enforcement of them, would help too.

But, as Dillow bemoans, none of these points help win the argument. The record seems to show that talking about the facts doesn't change much, and immigration attitudes are remarkably set in stone.

Loosening the restrictions on high-skilled immigration, though, ought to be a much easier thing to implement. It would have much less of an effect on the overall figure, and would still result in large increases in welfare. But it remains a far more politically acceptable thing to push for. Even some of the attacks on high-skilled immigration – like the crackdown on student visas or the increased hurdles foreign graduates have to jump over to use their (still largely publicly funded) skills in the UK – only became popular once they were rephrased as attacks on low-skilled immigration. So the student visa discussion, for instance, was focused on "fraudulent" language colleges, rather than accredited universities which are also hit.

Hopefully there will still be a genuine change in attitude. I still look forward to a day where we accept that discrimination against someone based on where they were born is as unacceptable as discrimination against someone based on what gender they are. But until then, if we want more and better immigration, we may have to sneak it in under the radar.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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

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