The Windrush scandal has achieved the rare feat of uniting the Labour Party and the Daily Mail in outrage. Indeed, regardless of their stance on immigration, seemingly all now agree that the Home Office’s harassment of long-standing residents was shameful.
There is more than a degree of hypocrisy to the right’s criticism of the government. Few objected when, as home secretary in 2014, Theresa May introduced the “hostile environment” policy that led to the Windrush crisis (only 18 MPs, including Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, David Lammy and John McDonnell, voted against the immigration bill).
For those who had been paying attention, the scandal came as no surprise. Immigration lawyers and activists had warned as early as 2014 that the “hostile environment” policy (which forced migrants to provide documentary proof of decades’ residence) was penalising legal as well as illegal migrants. On 30 January 2014, Diane Abbott asked May whether she had considered “the effect that her measures that are designed to crack down on illegal immigrants could have on people who are British nationals, but appear as if they might be immigrants?”
But the Windrush affair has also demonstrated to liberals how to better make the case for immigration. Though the public and MPs may favour draconian controls in theory, they often baulk at their practical consequences.
Polling has long shown that voters are sceptical of “immigration” as an abstract but are far more sympathetic to migrant groups. For instance, a study by British Future found that the public wanted numbers of the following groups to “increase or stay the same”: scientists and researchers (86 per cent), doctors and nurses (85 per cent), engineers (83 per cent), IT specialists (77 per cent), care workers (75 per cent), construction workers (63 per cent), fruit pickers (63 per cent), and waiters and bartenders (52 per cent). Polls show similar backing for foreign students and refugees. In short, when immigration is given a human form, support for it increases. As Diane Abbott recently observed: “The public are often draconian in theory but humane in practice.”
Liberals must be wary of unwittingly embracing a crude distinction between “good” and “bad” immigrants. The romantic narrative of the Windrush generation naturally evokes public sympathy – but if the “hostile environment” policy is wrong for them, it is wrong for all.
Too often, the immigration debate takes place at the abstract level. Liberals defend migrants on the grounds that it maximises GDP (which means little to those enduring stagnant wages). Conservatives demand that net migration be reduced to “tens of thousands” a year (from its current level of 244,000) while refusing to name those who would be denied entry. When questioned on Brexit, cabinet ministers become immigration nimbys: “Fewer migrants please, but not in my sector”.
By shifting the focus from immigration to immigrants, liberals can attract far greater sympathy than they thought possible. The public feel little attachment to “immigration” but they do to their friends, their colleagues, workers and customers. Humanity, not economics, is how the debate will be won.