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How can the moderate mainstream regain its voice on immigration after the EU referendum?

Maeve Glancy, researcher at Policy Network blogs argues it’s time to take back control of the conversation around migration.  This blog was originally published on the Policy Network website.  

After years of frustration, the referendum campaign unleashed pent-up anger on immigration, resulting in an explosive debate that helped lay the groundwork to drive Britain out of the EU. As the country charts an uncertain course forward, mainstream parties must offer concrete policy solutions and address divisive narratives on immigration. A new project by Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Fund is exploring how this can be done.

Over the past two weeks, the dust has been failing to settle in the wake of the UK’s most divisive political exercise in decades. Amid the chaos unleashed by the leave vote, there has been scrambling on all sides to come up with new positions on immigration in this context of turmoil. The initial reaction of many leading Brexiteers was to either shamelessly backtrack on claims made during the campaign or to resolutely refuse to acknowledge reality. We saw some key leave figures distancing themselves from earlier promises to end free movement, while others insisted that access to the single market coupled with caps on EU immigration would be possible or even easy to obtain. Remainers who had tried to downplay the relevance of immigration as an issue during the campaign were forced to concede its importance to the outcome.

As the political class deals with the Brexit fallout, ordinary communities around the country have been picking up the pieces. Reports of hate crimes surged fivefold in the week after the vote, and three million EU citizens, many with jobs, families, and long-established lives in Britain, have been left fretting about their future. Once the leadership battles and internal wrangling of parties in Westminster are settled, these people, along with millions who voted leave, will be waiting to hear in much greater detail what the new positions of the mainstream parties are and what a post-Brexit immigration policy is going to look like. To answer these questions effectively, parties must reflect on how immigration came to feature so strongly in the debate, what is really at stake, and what the building blocks of an effective response should now be.

How we got here

Immigration did not suddenly appear on the agenda during the referendum campaign. While it may have taken centre stage in TV debates and dominated the front pages during the ten week campaigning period, public concern on this topic has been rising over time (Figure 1); it also played a key role in the general elections of 2010 and 2015. The UK public appears to be reacting not to a fantasy, but to real changes in the number of people entering the country, which started to climb from the mid-1990s (Figure 2). Between 1993 and 2014, the foreign-born population more than doubled, reaching 13.1 per cent of the total. The ONS’s predictions at the end of 2015 projected population growth of 9.7 million over the next 25 years, of which (pre-Brexit) net migration was expected to account for just over half.

Figure 1

The mainstream political responses to these trends over the years varied under different governments, but had one thing in common: they failed to adequately address the public’s concern, and in particular their fears, over immigration. Currently, the UK’s main inflow comes from economic migration. This category experienced a notable rise after the Labour administration chose not to impose transitional controls on immigration from the EU8 states that joined the union in 2004. As one of only three existing EU members to do this (Sweden and Ireland being the others), the decision led to a surge in immigration from central and eastern European states and helped put the country on course to reach record levels of net migration in 2015. Net migration to the end of that year stood at 333,000, of which EU migration accounts for just under half. The release of this data weeks before the Brexit vote fed into the hostility towards EU migrants that had become a key plank of the leave campaign.

Figure 2

As immigration rose in the 2000s, Labour’s initial approach was to accept and embrace it, rather than try to discourage it. Viewing economic migration as beneficial to the economy (which manystudies have argued it is), Tony Blair’s government allowed for its largely unrestricted continuation, while developing a series of measures to tackle illegal immigration and promote integration. These included the setup of border controls at Calais, as well as developing English language classes, citizenship ceremonies and civic education courses for immigrants in the UK.

This approach increasingly irked many members of the public, particularly those in the towns and regions of the country experiencing large relative inflows, who worried not about national gains, but localised cultural and economic impact. When the Conservatives offered up the now infamous promise to cut net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ in the 2010 general election campaign, many were all too ready to hear it. When that reduction failed to materialise, it fuelled further distrust in mainstream politicians and helped create the image of a government powerless to control the country’s borders, which was used to such effect during the referendum campaign.

An existential threat

The number one beneficiary of the combined struggles and failures of mainstream parties on immigration in the UK has been the UK Independence Party. Having failed to capture public support advocating for the UK’s ‘independence’ from the EU on economic grounds, it significantly broadened its appeal by latching onto this issue and driving home the message that it was the only party to take the immigration ‘crisis’ seriously. UKIP has worked hard to cultivate its image as not racist, but simply advocating for ‘common sense’ policies when it comes to who should enter the country and in what numbers. Like the leave campaign in general, it has succeeded in drawing in a broad coalition of voters from an electorate that no longer divides neatly along left-right traditional lines, by focusing on the issues that matter to them most.

This detoxification effort and shift in focus has helped move UKIP from a fringe party to one that can command millions of votes. Now that its stated raison d’etre has been accomplished, and Nigel Farage has stepped down, the Party’s future is unclear. It may ultimately diminish in importance, or it may rise even further in popularity if an EEA-style Brexit agreement is negotiated for the UK that fails to curb free movement and allows the party to shout ‘betrayal’. What is evident are the risks that the style of politics promoted by it and its populist counterparts around Europe pose to mainstream parties, especially if they continue to flounder on immigration.

First, and most obviously, they risk a continued outright loss of votes and support. A majority of voters in the UK were happy to ignore the constant economic warnings aired in the run-up to the referendum in favour of simplistic catch-all messages that promised them every aspect of a better life outside the EU, including action on immigration. Even for those who believed the warnings, the chance to make unhappiness about their current circumstances heard was either worth the sacrifice, or in their view contained no sacrifice whatsoever since they had no further left to fall. If this sense of anger and despair is not addressed, the mainstream will continue to haemorrage support.

Second, mainstream parties risk being pushed rightwards in their own policies and their rhetoric in the hope of remaining popular and relevant. The promotion of the Australian-style points system for all immigrants, pushed by Conservative Vote Leave campaigners and UKIP alike, is one example of the mainstream and populists advocating for a similar policy on immigration. The system was presented as a fairer alternative to the existing one – where it was argued EU migrants were being prioritised over non-EU migrants – but a clear explanation of how this would work in practice was not provided. David Cameron’s 2015 reference to a ‘swarm’ of migrants at Calais was an earlier indication of a dangerous move in this populist direction. These changes in tone are also associated with the left. Labour’s stance on immigration began to toughen in 2010 when it first properly shifted focus to reducing immigration and increasing controls; since then its policy has been couched in increasingly negative terms.

These challenges mean that getting it right on immigration is not just a question of gaining or maintaining power for mainstream parties; it is a question of their very survival. Although the UK’s electoral system has kept UKIP at bay nationally, its ability to influence the debate and pressure the mainstream helped bring the Brexit vote about. After a vitriolic referendum campaign, major parties are left divided at the very time when strength and leadership is most needed.

Charting a new path

The question remains what can be done about all of this. A new Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Fund research project is exploring the questions mainstream parties in the UK must ask and answer if they are to develop new, effective and comprehensive strategies on immigration. The project considers this challenge in the context of a European continent in which several countries have seen a rise in hostility towards immigration and a surge in support for populist parties, including several that are now demanding their own referendums on EU membership. It will ask what can be learned from the efforts of other European countries to deal with immigration challenges, and consider what aspects of successful strategies might be adapted to the UK context.

The overall goal for mainstream parties must be to take back control of the conversation on immigration. As the EU referendum has shown, allowing both populist parties and populist voices within mainstream parties to dominate the debate can have far-reaching and negative consequences. The focus on immigrants as a threat during the campaign was powerful – they were portrayed as overburdening the UK’s systems, particularly the NHS, and the spectre of Turkey was used to frighten voters. This presentation was not effectively challenged and remain campaigners failed to make a positive case for immigration. Regaining voice on this issue requires not a simplistic focus on numbers, but a reconsideration of how the whole debate on immigration is conducted. Moderate voices must untangle the myriad of issues that feed into the public’s sense of discontent, and address their fears including those of erosion of national identity and growing worry about various insecurities in a globalised world.

The good news for those wishing for a more nuanced conversation on immigration is that there may still be large numbers of people who are willing to take part in that conversation and listen to new ideas put on the table. British Future has previously carried out work that identified half the British public as falling into a ‘moderate majority’ or ‘anxious middle’ who were not polarised on either end of the immigration debate, but whose positions actually depend on the policies and reassurances offered. The divisions stirred by the campaign have heightened the urgency of reaching and engaging those people. Referendums are by nature divisive, as they force a choice between two simple options – in this case ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ – but the public, who recognise the complexity of immigration challenges, must be reassured that there are still more options available to them than simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to immigration. While acknowledging the key role immigration concerns played in the campaign, the final vote does not by any account equate to a 52 per cent vote against immigration and a 48 per cent vote for it.

The complex concerns of this ‘anxious middle’ must be addressed through workable policy proposals which are realistic and implementable. This means abandoning grand promises and unachievable targets in favour of open discussions about the trade-offs that are required to live in a modern, open democracy, as many Britons still want the UK to be. While in the Brexit negotiations free movement will be top of the agenda, the wider context of other immigration challenges should not be forgotten. More than 50 per cent of current UK immigration comes from outside the EU, and the referendum outcome has also stoked tensions on issues such as the Jungle at Calais, with a number of French voices calling for a renegotiation of the Le Touqet agreement. All of these issues, and the consideration of each constituent category of immigration – be it economic, asylum, family reunion, or students – will require attention and debate.

The new prime minister and her government will need to be far more open and honest on immigration than any before them as they seek to restore public confidence and remedy the erosion of trust in politics which led so many voters to feel their voices went unheard for so long. As well as looking to other European countries for examples of best practice, they could consider revamping UK ideas from the past (such as the Migrant Impact Fund), and look to engage diverse stakeholder groups, including civil society, to come up with new and innovative proposals. Particularly sensitive in the aftermath of a Brexit vote and the divides it has revealed in UK society will be the question of integration and social cohesion. The work being done on these issues will take on greater importance than ever, including the recommendations of the Casey Review, which is expected for release in the coming months.

Regaining control of this debate also requires a commitment from the moderate mainstream not just to act on immigration, but to make sure they are seen to be acting. Effective communication is more important than ever for an anxious public and cannot just be one way. People around the UK, however they voted on the EU, must be able to see, feel and understand the ways in which their concerns are being addressed as new policy on immigration develops in the new political world that emerges after the Brexit vote. They must be consulted, listened to, and made to feel they have a stake in this. If parties can harness and engage the interest of these people and offer constructive solutions to their concerns, then the tumult we are now seeing could yet give way to a more positive outcome on immigration that avoids the pitfalls of the past.

Maeve Glavey, researcher, Policy Network