For political veterans, the recent arguments over immigration have a very familiar feel: dire warnings of crisis as official statistics show record numbers of people coming to Britain to work, study and join their families, while a dysfunctional Home Office struggles to cope with a new wave of refugees; a beleaguered government pledging to clamp down, yet lacking the means or will to do so. All are familiar plot lines from past political dramas on immigration 10 or even 20 years ago. The political responses are predictable too – social conservatives thunder about the failure, yet again, to deliver the swingeing cuts they claim voters demand. Liberals prevaricate and change the subject, afraid their arguments are doomed to fail with a sceptical electorate. All the players are locked into the same old roles. None of them seems to realise the script has changed.
One of the most remarkable, yet least remarked upon, changes in politics over the past decade has been the dramatic liberal shift in public opinion on immigration. The decades-long tendency to see immigration as a problem to be controlled is now in rapid decline. The rising view is that immigration is a resource that can deliver gains for all. A majority now see immigration as economically and culturally beneficial, as a driver of economic recovery and a vital source of support for public services. The share of voters who say migration levels should stay the same or increase has never been higher, even as migration has hit record highs.
The public now favours increased recruitment of migrants across a wide range of economic sectors, from the NHS and social care to fruit pickers and pint pullers. Some of the largest positive shifts have come in low-paid sectors struggling with shortages, such as catering and construction. Voters see a case for more migration in practically every economic sector asked about. Only migrant bankers are unwanted.
Like all big changes, this liberal shift has many sources. Demographic change is moving Britain slowly in a liberal direction on many fronts – inherently more migration-sceptical groups are shrinking a little every year, while pro-migration groups grow. Yet the change of the past decade is too broad and fast for population shifts alone to explain. Brexit may be another part of the story – voters approve of the post-Brexit points-based system, which applies equally to all labour migrants, and post-Brexit labour shortages have underlined the economic importance of migrant labour. The Covid and post-Covid period may also have generated a wider direct experience of the vital and often high risk work migrants do, from the NHS and social care, to transport and home-delivery services.
The more moderate and pragmatic public mood is not evident in government rhetoric. The Conservatives are constrained by their heavy reliance on migration sceptics attracted to the party since Brexit by the promise to “take back control”. Fears of an anti-immigrant backlash lock the party into hardline language and proposals, yet fears of an anti-austerity backlash ensure these remain empty gestures. The government needs migrant workers yet cannot bring itself to say so. Likewise, the Rwanda plan for asylum seekers is obviously unworkable yet no one in government can admit it.
This approach is now failing on numerous fronts. Voters have noticed the yawning chasm between Conservative words and deeds. Eight out of 10 disapprove of the government’s record, an all-time low. Even those who approve of the Rwanda scheme see it as gesture politics, expensive and doomed to fail. Nigel Farage remains a more attractive option for migration hardliners, while years of draconian rhetoric have alienated swing voters who now favour a more moderate approach. The Conservatives’ reputation on immigration has been trashed across the board – for decades they led Labour by large margins as the best party to handle the issue. Now Labour is favoured in most polls, the only Tory consolation being that most voters distrust both the parties equally.
A floundering government and a warming public should present opportunities for progressive politicians to make the case for open migration. So far, Labour’s response has been circumspect – balancing recognition of migrants’ economic contributions with calls for business to do more to raise the skills, productivity and wages of British workers. Yet caution brings its own risks. Tough language and vague policy may be prudent on the campaign trail, but risk storing up problems once in government.
A Labour government, like the current Conservative one, will rely on migrant contributions to grow the economy and staff public services. The party needs to make the case in opposition for the reforms it will need in government. It has made a start, pledging to make the current points-based selection system more responsive to changing economic and social needs and to junk the expensive, performative cruelty of the Rwanda scheme. Labour could go further, for example, by promising root-and-branch reform of the toxic “hostile environment” and by offering a new deal to migrants who make their lives here with liberalised citizenship rules, implemented by a swifter, cheaper and more transparent migration bureaucracy.
Labour’s instinct to tread carefully is understandable – the party has been bruised by immigration before, the public is still wary and liberalism on migration remains more prevalent in the big city seats the opposition already holds than the rural or small town seats it needs to win. Yet such risks can be overstated – the Tory voters most open to Labour are pragmatic moderates who see immigration as beneficial. The Conservatives, distrusted by voters, and terrified of a Farageist revolt on their right, cannot contest the new centre ground. Labour has a once in a generation opportunity to change the conversation on immigration. It may be a risk worth taking.
• Robert Ford is co-author with Marley Morris of a new report, A New Consensus? How Public Opinion has Changed on Immigration, published by the Institute for Public Policy Research
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