Immigration is the one issue where we really do get the politicians we deserve. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Politicians will never please the public on immigration, so they should stop trying

On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it. 

There is one hot political topic where the two most honest politicians also happen to be the politicians we despise the most. Indeed, we regularly say we value frankness from our elected representatives yet if this issue is anything to go by we actually respond to something quite different: an emotional pandering to our most illogical prejudices. 
 
The topic in question is immigration, an issue we are supposedly "not allowed to talk about" but which almost every week results in some cheap and counterproductive initiative flowing from the mouth of a politician. Yesterday it was Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves talking about restricting benefits for migrants until they’ve worked. Last week it was David Cameron talking about the supposed "magnetic pull" of the British benefits system. Next month we’ll probably hear of a fresh "get tough" announcement depriving immigrants of some other "entitlement" they rarely use.   
 
It should be obvious as to why politicians like to blow the infamous dog-whistle on immigration and drip-feed the press an endless stream of announcements on "restrictions" and "crack downs". In almost every opinion poll immigration is near to the top in terms of issues the public say they are concerned about. And when they say "concerned" they invariably mean pulling up the drawbridge on fortress Britain. According to a poll from January of this year, three quarters of Britons wanted a reduction in the level of immigration, with 56 per cent calling for a big fall in the number of people allowed into the country.  
 
Considering that a majority of recent immigrants are from other countries in the European Union, there are two things that any honest politician can take from this: either Britain must pull out of Europe right away or we must accept the free movement of people and get on with it. All talk by David Cameron of reforming the EU to allow Britain to opt out of free movement is hogwash – however much the Daily Mail thunders the rest of Europe won’t stand for it. We can therefore either cling to the sepia-tinged illusion that Britain can live (and live well) without immigration or we can accept immigration as a fact of life and grapple with the really important issues like integration.  
 
There are only two politicians willing to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion. Nick Clegg, the consummate pro-European, has (in the past at least) been unafraid to point out that immigration is good for Britain. Meanwhile Nigel Farage, who wants to take Britain out of Europe entirely, says (again truthfully) that you cannot significantly reduce immigration unless Britain leaves the European Union. Both, in their different ways, are correct. And yet their reward for the honesty we say we so badly want is to be the most despised politicians in the country – albeit for quite different reasons. 
 
Indeed, for all we claim to hate the political class for their dishonesty, immigration is the one issue where we are quite comfortable with being lied to. We know very well that migrants pay in to the exchequer more than they take out; and yet still we demand that politicians "crack down" on the mythical concept of "benefit tourism" (there was no evidence of widespread benefit tourism by EU nationals, according to a report last year by the European Commission). We know that Britons are more likely (two-and-a-half times more likely) to be claiming working age benefits than non-UK nationals, but still we buy into racist tabloid stereotypes about opportunistic foreigners ready to steal the shirt off our collective back. We cite free movement as our favourite thing about the EU, yet we grumble into our newspaper when a citizen of another country actually decides to exercise that right. 
 
This probably explains why, while we say we want a large reduction in immigration, we oppose the only sure method of actually bringing it about – leaving the EU.
 
It’s a cliché to say that we get the politicians we deserve, but immigration is the one issue where we really do. We want the European Union and the fiscal benefits of immigration but without any of the perceived drawbacks. We want the minimum wage cleaners, the nannies and the glass collectors but without the sound of the foreign voices on the daily commute. We say we don’t want migrants coming here to "steal our jobs" but we do nothing about it because, deep down, we know they are coming to Britain and paying for our pensions.
 
The next time you hear David Cameron or Ed Miliband making unkeepable promises about immigration, or pledging to "listen to genuine concerns" (whatever that entails) bear in mind that they are only doing what most people seemingly want them to do: using macho rhetoric that signifies nothing. On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it. We want immigration but without the immigrants. Try and triangulate your way out of that one.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot ForwardHe tweets @J_Bloodworth.

 

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.