Immigration policy has for some time been premised on the idea that immigration is deeply unpopular—and hence the “tougher” policies are, the more public support they will gain. Recent research, however, shows that attitudes to immigration are gradually becoming more positive—and that voters take a more balanced view than politicians credit. Here is how public policy should take that into account.
Over 15 months British Future and HOPE undertook the National Conversation on Immigration, the biggest-ever public consultation on this issue. We held more than 130 meetings in 60 places in every nation and region of the UK. Together with an open online survey and a nationally representative survey conducted by ICM, some 19,951 people took part.
Face-to-face discussion gave people a chance to share their views, and, in many cases, come to a consensus. But these moderate and balancing opinions are not reflected everywhere. Online and media debates about immigration are dominated by relatively few voices, where those with stronger views at either end of the spectrum are most likely to voice their opinions. Immigration policy needs to be better at responding to the views of the majority, rather than those who shout the loudest.
Brexit has opened a window of opportunity to reform immigration policy and to put in place a system that protects refugees, works for employers and commands broad public trust and support. In Open and Ethical, a new Fabian Society report, I argue this confidence cannot be fully restored without engaging the public in a debate about their views, their concerns and the policy changes they would like to see made.
Contribution, control and fairness emerged as common themes in all of our discussions. The citizens’ panels wanted migrants who come to the UK to make a contribution, through the skills they bring, the jobs they do and through taxation. There was strong support for highly skilled migrants, with the panels also taking a pragmatic view about low- and medium-skilled migration when they saw migrants filling jobs that need doing.
At the same time, the citizens’ panels also wanted immigration to be controlled, but with “control” meaning different things to different people: UK sovereignty over immigration policy, a selective immigration system, competent enforcement and in…