Immigration - the right thing to be talking about?

While public concern over immigration is relatively high, and has been increasing, it has not reached the peaks of the past.

Most British people want less immigration and support the government’s intention to reduce it. Many will say it is among the most important issues facing Britain (below the economy of course). But when we ask people about problems where they live, only 18 per cent say it is an issue. Keith Vaz kept the debate about immigration alive last weekend following speeches from David Cameron, Nick Clegg and a party political broadcast from Ed Miliband in recent weeks. Immigration is an issue the media and politicians talk about, but how important is it to the public? Do politicians lead or follow on immigration?

A truism of public opinion research is that in any focus group, on nearly any subject matter, you can guarantee that immigration will be raised. There is resentment towards migrants who many feel accept low pay and poor conditions, therefore undercutting Britons in the labour market. That feeling of unfairness comes about because they are seen to be avoiding 'contributing' to the system, while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of living in Britain. The difficult economic climate and hardship that many Britons and Britain itself have fallen into only hardens those attitudes.

That resentment was underlined in a 2011 poll for the BBC's Future State of Welfare, which found that three quarters of British adults agreed that there are some groups of people that should have their benefits cut. It will come as no surprise that immigrants came top of the list of who to cut from, above those claiming over £400 a week in housing benefit, the long-term unemployed and those on incapacity benefit.

This suggests that David Cameron’s announcement that migrants will lose their benefits after six months unless they have a chance of finding work will attract popular support. There is more evidence to suggest it will go down well in an Ipsos MORI poll for the UK Border Agency from 2009 in which three in four Britons agreed that "migrants should not have full access to benefits until they become citizens", while the Transatlantic Trends series from 2011 shows that most Britons think it is very important for migrants with low education to be allowed into Britain on the condition that they do not use any social benefits. The fact that the figures since Cameron’s speech show that his cuts would affect a minimal number of migrants will matter less; the gesture is an important one, the detail will be heard less.

But why is immigration once again top of the political agenda? All three leaders have addressed the issue in the space of a few weeks. While public concern over immigration is relatively high, and has been increasing, it has not reached the peaks of the past. Ipsos MORI analysis covering the period from 2000 to 2006 showed that spikes in public concern about immigration were closely related to spikes in media coverage of immigration – as is often the case with other issues such as the NHS and crime. So are our politicians ahead of the curve on this occasion or are they simply trying to out-manoeuvre each other?

Immigration has been a strong suit for the Conservative Party, rated as the best party on immigration every time Ipsos MORI has asked the question. However, in September last year, their lead over Labour on immigration was only seven points, where previously they had enjoyed double digit leads (a record lead of 29 points in 1978). Ed Miliband’s admission that Labour did not do enough on immigration is surely an attempt to close that gap even further. David Cameron's focus on immigration, and benefits, will be seen as an attempt to counter recent unrest among his own supporters and he’s picked an issue important to Conservative and UKIP voters (many of whom used to be Conservatives).

Politicians are often accused of spending too much time talking about issues that do not matter to the public. While the economy is the main issue concerning voters, immigration, in different guises, does matter to people. Whether it is because they are struggling to get a job or because of the perceived strain on the welfare state and public services, for many it is also about fairness. It is not that the British public unanimously sees immigration as a bad thing, but many object to immigrants' perceived lack of contribution to the system and their undercutting of domestic workers. David Cameron, on this issue, has chimed with public opinion. 

David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration in Ipswich on 25 March, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

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I'm a Remain voter who feels optimistic about Brexit - here's why

Take back control is more than just a slogan. 

Most politics geeks have found themselves deliciously sucked into a soap opera over the last few days. It’s fast-paced, personality-based and ripe for speculation. But underneath it all, the deeper, harder questions remain – what does Brexit look like, and how can we make it work?

When news of Leave’s victory broke in the early hours of Friday morning (is it possible that was just a week ago?) I felt like the only Remain voter who had some kind of optimism. Fellow Remainers still reeling from the result berate me for it, but I continue to find two reasons for hope.

First, leaving gives us a chance to build a different type of economy. I don’t wish to belittle the recent economic fallout, but with the right leadership and negotiations, we could use this moment to push for an increase in trade with the Commonwealth and beyond. A fall in the pound will disappoint many, but it could help with a much needed rebalancing of our economy, moving from one predominantly based on financial services in London to manufacturing across the regions. 

Second – and perhaps more importantly – leaving is a chance to rebuild our politics. For too long, millions of people in this country have felt ignored or exploited by those who call themselves democratic leaders. In protest, they have left mainstream parties to join UKIP or the hordes of non-voters. In winning this referendum, they have finally been listened to. Perhaps the pressure cooker of discontent can finally be taken off the boil. Perhaps parties can use this result as a chance to rebuild trust and shake up some of our other institutions that are badly in need of reform. 

This point was really brought home to me by a student in the school where I teach. The morning of the referendum she told me that she didn’t think we’d leave the EU, even if the people voted for it. Her friends agreed, saying it was “weird you have to vote in pencil”. They were scared the people’s voice could so easily be rubbed out. When I saw her the next day, a small part of me was relieved that these students had seen that people can genuinely trump the establishment. 

If you’re not convinced, just imagine the backlash if Remain had won by a point or two. We almost certainly would then have voted in an extremely right-wing government, much the same way that the SNP saw a boost after they lost the independence referendum last year. 

Of course, a positive path for Brexit is far from guaranteed. Any leader that goes back on the vote, or tries to fudge it by saying that open borders are a price worth paying, is going to do worse than plummet in the polls - they are going to undermine our entire democracy. And a whole generation’s trust in politicians is already dangerously low.

But this doesn’t have to be a moment for the right. Good leaders understand that Leave’s “take back control” message was about a genuine concern with our borders. Great leaders will acknowledge that it also reflected a deeper concern about the need for agency. They understand the vote was a rejection of a neoliberal approach to the economy that fails to make space for well-paid work, family and community.

The public voted for decreased pressure on public services and a Britain that would negotiate as hard in India as it would in Germany for trade deals. They voted to end a perceived overcentralisation of power by elites, and create a more democratic Britain that gives more dignity to its people. I might not have believed that leaving the EU was the best way to achieve these things, but I’m on the left because I believe we are best placed to make these desires real.  

The vote to Leave or Remain was a binary decision. But Brexit is not. What type of path we take now depends entirely on the direction we choose, and the perseverance we show along the way.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham