End this gutter debate about Britain’s immigration policy

Published in The Guardian (November 30th, 2013)

It’s been a depressing week for British politics as it takes another sordid step into the stinking gutter of xenophobia. It was hard to believe the immigration debate could become any more rancid. But once again we see our posturing political parties jostling to outdo each other in their desperate desire to demonstrate hostility to foreigners seeking to come here.

Many leading lights across the political divide privately loathe this tone, which is economically, socially and culturally corrosive for this country. They dislike the deliberate attempt to create a hostile climate to deter potential immigrants. They know many of the ugly arguments they parrot in public fly in the face of facts. But their defence is simple: we must respond to voters’ concerns.

This is utter rubbish. While Labour falls over itself pathetically to apologise for its past, there is a fallacy among Conservatives – inflamed by the rise of Ukip and subsequent arrival of Lynton Crosby – that they failed to win outright the last election because they were too soft on immigration. The reality could not be more different: they held a 39-point lead over Labour on this issue, but were largely level-pegging on subjects of core daily relevance, such as economic competence and the health service.

Nor will immigration determine how people vote at the next election, according to several leading pollsters I talked to. “They do not believe it is a big issue in their lives,” said Stephan Shakespeare, chief executive of YouGov. There is a huge gap between high figures showing voters saying it is a big issue nationally and far lower numbers saying it bothers them locally or in practice. Concerns are, incidentally, highest in areas with lowest numbers of immigrants.

Instead of feeding people’s fears in tough economic times with a toxic debate locked into ever-decreasing circles, politicians should try something different: to show the leadership that is supposed to be part of their job description. They can shift polls and perceptions – as David Cameron knows better than anyone. When he became Tory leader, hugging huskies and raising green issues with such passion, there was a clear rise in concerns over the environment. Eighteen months later, it was the single most important political issue for one in five voters.

There are scores of similar examples. Sometimes leaders win over the public by sticking to convictions and ignoring polls, as Ken Livingstone did when introducing his congestion charge. It was opposed by a majority of Londoners – but led to concerns in the capital over transport halving within a decade. At other times, they use their platform to shift attitudes, as Tony Blair did on education while in opposition and Ed Miliband is currently doing on living standards and inequality.

The tragedy of the immigration debate is that it contains such fertile terrain for politicians prepared to display courage. For a start, people think there are far more immigrants in the country than there really are. Despite this, more than two-thirds favour admitting the same number or even more foreign students – yet they are the very people being driven away to rival institutions, thereby undermining a thriving sector of the economy. Far harder to winkle out illegal entrants and overstayers.

Similarly, surveys show Britons seem comfortable luring wealthy foreigners to invest here; allowing nurses and doctors to work in the NHS; letting in skilled people to find jobs; and giving sanctuary to those fleeing war and persecution. But where are the politicians who use such findings to argue migration is a fact of life on a globalised planet – as shown by millions of British people living abroad? Instead, they pander to cheap prejudice.

Underlying the immigration debate are profound questions over our nation’s uncertain role in a rapidly evolving world, allied to serious political issues such as inept border controls, benefit misuse, housing shortages, educational failures, low pay and productivity. Sadly, politicians think the easiest answer is to endlessly blame foreigners.

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