Consider two facts;
1. More than half of the public think that parts of Britain don’t feel like Britain anymore because of the levels of immigration.
2. Most Brits do not consider themselves to be prejudiced against other races.
Now ask yourself, what should the Labour Party’s policy be on immigration?
Here’s the background;
Under Labour there was an increase in number of people coming to the UK, as you can see from this chart.
The ‘inflow’ of people coming to the UK rose from 327,000 in 1997 to 589,000 in 2004.
(We should perhaps remember that the vast majority of people in Britain are white and that the number of people coming in to the country each year hardly make up 1% of the overall population.)
During that same period of time, the public became increasingly concerned about immigration. As you can see from this chart, just before the credit crunch, it was the topic that was named more than any other, as the most significant issue facing the country.
People strongly disapprove of Labour’s policy of allowing more people to come to the UK. Most people believe that the number of immigrants in the UK should be reduced.
When people are asked what the worst things was about Tony Blair’s government, more people say Labour’s immigration policy than anything else, more than Iraq.
While these feelings are broadly held in Britain, they are more strongly and more consistently held by certain groups;
“The research highlights that older, working class, and less well qualified people often have very different views from other people on these issues. For example, younger, middle class people and those who have a university degree are much less conservative (with a small c) on these issues. On the question of whether Britain is losing its identity, 73% of those without qualifications and 74% of over 55s agree with this statement. In contrast, only 29% of those with degrees and 46% of those under 45 agree with the same statement.”
At the same time many academics and scholars believe that immigration is good for the country’s economy, bringing innovation, new skills and benefiting those who are able to work with immigrants.
One possible solution, is for the Labour party to put in place local approaches that attempt to change people’s minds about immigration.
For example, contact theory suggests that if people have more frequent contact with immigrants they are less likely to be hostile to immigration in general.
This makes sense, and it probably accounts for the fact that multi-cultural London, as a region, is less hostile to immigration than any other region of the UK.
However (to quote a Government report);
Desirable as they might be towards promoting better relations, ‘sustained
encounters’ and ‘deep and meaningful interactions’ are simply not going to
occur among most people in British cities today, whether ethnic majority,
minority or new immigrant. Apart from a few contexts such as work or
school, most urban encounters are ﬂeeting or momentary,
Not only would it take an absolutely gargantuan effort to initiate contact between more and more British people and immigrants, there is also the stubborn fact that “in many cases the public do not base their views on any direct local experience [of immigrants or immigration], but rather a general anxiety”
A national debate
If the public’s hostility towards immigration cannot be addressed through local initiatives perhaps it would be better for the Labour party to adopt a national approach.
This could involve attempting to persuade the public that immigration is not really that bad, that people have nothing to fear, dispelling myths and putting in policies to ensure that public services such as schools are not overburden in certain areas and so on and so on.
Part of the reason that this approach is not, currently, particularly viable for the Labour party is that the public are not yet ready to listen to the Labour party on the issue of immigration.
The public do not trust the Labour party on immigration. They are much more likely to trust the Conservatives or no political party at all on the issue.
Remember, the majority of the public are hostile to Labour’s record on immigration and believe that there should be fewer immigrants in the country. If the Labour party were to try and start a discussion with the public on this topic, for example by coming up with a clever way of framing the issue, the public would be unlikely to listen.
And this is before we come to the stubborn fact that, people do not change their mind when they are confronted by contradictory opinions or facts.
If the Labour party started to routinely present information to the public to justify a more liberal immigration policy, the chances are that the public would dismiss that information.
The situation seems pretty bleak.
The Labour party could just hope that people will vote for them despite their immigration policy, because people are so disatsifed with the Tories ideological and incompentent handling of the economy and public services.
Or, the Labour party could adopt a less liberal policy on immigration, for example, putting further restrictions on who can enter the country and so on.
Before we despair, there may be a third option. Although it is true that people usually ignore or dismiss ideas or facts that contradict what they already believe, there is one situation when they are less likely to do so;
“[People] may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss. People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it.”
If people feel like they closely identify with someone, there is a chance, just a chance, that they will actually listen to challenging or different ideas.
This may be Labour’s best approach on immigration policy. Labour should concentrate on building people’s identification with the party in a broad sense, and only then discuss the potentially divisive issue of immigration.
In policy terms, I think this means a degree of economic populism (be it “responsible capitalism” or “pre-distribution”).
In presentation terms, I think this means having senior Labour politicians who are older, working class and who do not have formal qualifications. Only then is there a chance that the public will listen to the party on this issue.
As a footnote it might be worth noting the implicit argument of this post; that people became more concerned about immigration because the number of immigrants increased.
Others would say that people became more concerned because their emotions were whipped up by politicians, or the media or some other elite group.
I do not believe that the public are that easily manipulated but there may be some truth in this line of thought. However, even if there is, how does that change our analysis of the current situation and our ideas for what we should do about it?