Migrants’ Rights Network: “How to talk about immigration?”

by , under Don Flynn

Don Flynn*
The thinktank British Future created a stir last week with the publication of its new book, How to talk about immigration.

It is clear that, given the current febrile state of the public mood, a lot of damage can be done by talking about immigration in ways that are insensitive to many people’s anxieties. Times are exceptionally hard for so many people – wage earners in particular are feeling the squeeze of an economy which has blocked off any rise in their living standards for most of a decade. Commonsense, that age-old foe of critical thinking, tells citizens that immigration must have something to do with this unhappy state of affairs. If there is good evidence which shows that this is not the case then we have to find the best way to get this across to the people who would benefit from knowing the true facts.

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The British Future manual provides a good checklist, based on three years of public opinion research, for the obvious things that should not be done in communicating about migration: Don’t make out that people are stupid because they are showing resistance to the idea that migrants pay more in taxes than they receive in services. Take seriously the concerns they have that changes brought about by migration might be happening too quickly.  Think about the reasons why new arrivals might not be welcome in communities which feel that the public services which are so important to their lives are already under too great a stress.

British Future also puts forward a compelling argument for the view that the majority of the population occupies a ‘persuadable middle ground’ position in immigration which would shift in the direction of moderately pro-immigration arguments, providing these were put well by people they trust.

It seems almost rude to stir up disagreements with a set of ideas and proposals which have the best intentions, but a few red flags need to be posted about British Future’s policy conclusions, which merit further discussion.

Theorists of this sort of thing tell us that there are broadly two ways of doing politics in liberal democratic societies.  One of these is the technocratic approach favoured by expert elites.  It tells us that modern society is tremendously complex and capable of generating problems and tensions at any point across its extended field of operation.  Each has the potential to be dealt with in isolation from the others, with the need to fight foreign wars having no necessary relation to heath care policies or the cost of housing.

In this way of looking at things immigration policy throws up a set of issues that ought to be isolated from the ability of politicians to deal with the budget deficit, improve the standard of primary school education, or provide adequate pensions for the retired.  Government needs to draw on the expertise of policy wizards who know how to fix things under each of these individual headings and let them get on with the job.

Against this there is the populist tide in democratic politics which resists the idea that the problems of contemporary life are fragmented and separate.  It answers the charge that we should leave it to the experts to get the system to work again with the accusation that the apparently separate problems are actually subsets of the one big problem which is breaking the back of the whole of society.  The experts have failed and it is now down to ordinary citizens to work out what needs to be done to come up with solutions – and these will inevitably be far reaching and radical.

The British Future approach strongly skews the direction of the discussion towards technocratic responses. Following a detailed analysis of public opinion research, the book concludes by putting forward an immigration management package which it proposes is plausible according to the requirements of the ‘persuadable majority’, and that would generate a set of ‘realistic targets’ that a majority would be prepared to back.  How to talk about immigration ends by pitching a deal that would allow universities to recruit international students, employers to bring in skilled workers, and shepherd all newcomers to a safe haven as integrated residents of British society.

It sounds so elegantly simple as to make you wonder why no one has come up with it before.  But hang on a minute – that is exactly what the all the parties in government have thought they were doing at virtually every moment for close on the past two decades.  New Labour promised to be ‘as tough as old boots’ on unwanted asylum seekers and labour migrants who failed to produce value for the UK economy.  They offered a ‘realistic’ package of ultra-surveillance that would have enhanced the power of state agencies to enforce the immigration rules through biometric identity cards and total overview of migrant movements through society.

The quid pro quo for this assurance that everyone moving into the country was subject to thoroughgoing control was acceptance of migration at the higher levels needed to maintain growth amongst the economic sectors producing employment growth – primarily the small and medium sized business hungry for a workforce with the sort of soft skills to be found most readily amongst migrants.

The coalition government subsequently promoted its own version of realistic targets – in broad terms similar to the set New Labour had been running when they were evicted from office but with the added oomph of a promise to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. Ironically, whilst this might have had a higher approval rating amongst public opinion as to what people really wanted, the conjunction of a whole range of factors running from the obligations that ensued from the EU Treaties, the persistence of high levels of demand for migrants amongst British employers, and the chronic ineptitude of a Home Office which exemplifies everything we know about that dead end, sclerotic structure which is the Westminster state today, was always certain to confound and destroy all the hopes for the ‘no ifs, no buts’ solution the coalition was aiming for.

The danger for British Future in this context is the risk of association with the claims of technocratic currents in mainstream politics that an unreformed, over-centralised, elitist bureaucratic state is capable of delivering the goods. The guiding framework for the paper is the issues that would be acceptable to the public and the political elite at this moment in time, and some of the most difficult but salient human rights issues relating to migration – for example the impacts of immigration enforcement, the position of undocumented migrants, the need for reform of the detention estate, the shape of future asylum policy and so on – are not tackled.

So if the door is slammed shut against the prospect of progress through this style of political management, what about its more unashamedly populist and democratic alternative? What would advocacy of immigration policies look like if it was bold enough to share the widely held view that mainstream politics does have to carry a large share of the blame for the mess that so many people are in today?

We have the examples of the public conversation in Scotland to know that framing the issue of migration according to the needs of 5 million people has brought a very different shape to the politics of that country. Last week’s news of Obama’s executive order offering temporary legal status to approximately five million undocumented immigrants is another good example of how politicans can push for a real change beyond the established middle ground.

There are good grounds for believing that the task of winning the debate on immigration will require a great deal more than finessing the language aimed at the mainstream majority. The populist moods sweeping liberal democracies all over the world require conviction and a robust determination to take on and defeat a resurgent right wing which is working to rally opinion around the pole of traditional authority and the Thatcherite values of middle England. The language and advocacy we most need is that which is most capable of taking this on and beating it, and finding our way to that approach ought to be our highest authority.

Read original posting here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.