James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
The erupting controversy over the treatment of the Windrush generation and suggestions of irritation amongst the Indian Government around British unwillingness to grant more visas to Indians throw up an important question: why are the Conservatives unable to devise a sensible and popular immigration policy? After all, surely we know what the public think about an issue that’s been top or nearly top of voters’ concerns for many years? And given we’re about to leave the EU and assume full control over our borders, continued failure risks pointlessly disrupting lives, annoying voters and alienating allies.
Over the last decade, the Conservative approach to immigration has been strangely contradictory. Certainly until the referendum, on the one hand the Conservatives effectively campaigned for completely open borders with the European Union, with generous welfare payments attached as part of the deal, as well as accepting large scale immigration from much of the rest of the world. But on the other hand, the Conservatives encouraged eye-wateringly aggressive, narrow crackdowns on small numbers of illegal immigrants. Remember the Home Office poster vans warning illegal immigrants to go home?
Since the referendum, this negative aspect of the Conservatives’ approach has continued: the Home Office raised then abandoned the prospect of forcing businesses to declare their numbers of foreign workers; the Prime Minister refused to immediately promise to guarantee the status of EU nationals already living in Britain; now the Home Office appears to be pursuing a scheme to threaten and even deport long-term British residents (in reality British nationals), and the Government is seemingly dragging its feet on a more generous visa settlement with India, an emerging economic superpower whose goodwill we need and whose highly qualified workers could boost the economy.
Each of these aggressive measures looks like they’ve been designed by people that have never met an ordinary voter and think that such illiberal ideas must surely appeal to the primitive desires of the masses. The thinking seems to go: “we’ve just got to get tough to show we’re listening”. But this is a complete misreading of what the public – including Leave voters – want to see. And it seems to be driven by Remain-voting politicians who, because they’ve misread Leave voters’ motives, are trying to wildly over-compensate to show they “get it”.
While the opinion research is somewhat scattered, a synthesis of it shows, emphatically, the public do not want to see the Government “get tough” through one-off announcements. Indeed, they are sceptical about the idea of a straight immigration cap; they are open to free movement from the EU without welfare attached; and they think that those that came to Britain decades ago in the Windrush generation should have the right to stay. (Incidentally, people also rate prospective new arrivals’ education and skills way higher than, say, their religion; for the majority, concerns about immigration is not linked to culture, as many believe).
In reality, as Open Europe helped explain in their report on immigration last autumn, the public hold a much more nuanced view of immigration. I did some of the focus groups that informed the study and, across groups, people made it clear they were happy with significant continued immigration as long as it met key criteria: there must be no immediate welfare payments available and people must “pay in” before they access benefits; the amount of migrants entering Britain should rise and fall depending on the needs of the economy and there should never simply be open borders (yes, they want to “take back control”); and they want a system, which they think is like the Australian system, that has a bias towards those with high skills or that are coming to Britain to do vital work like working in the NHS; they also want to keep out people with a criminal record, of course.
In short, people want those that arrive to contribute financially and socially. And this helps to explain why people, particularly old people, are supportive of the rights of the Windrush generation. Those that have been here for decades will be viewed as long-term contributors to British society – people that have “paid in” and are authentically British, regardless of where they were born. Many will be open to a more generous visa settlement with India if it brings highly qualified and hard-working people.
The Government’s ambition on immigration should not be limited to simply avoiding mistakes, although that should be a start and should be easy to achieve. Rather, the Government should be looking to create an immigration system which is a massive net positive to voters. But if they’re looking for a gimmick, forget the poster vans threatening to deport those here illegally and get some posters up in Bangalore, Shanghai and Tel Aviv and encourage the best and brightest to get over here on the next plane to start work.