ICYMI: British voters want more immigrants but less immigration

From the Economist (many countries and issues have similar contradictions):

The biggest lie in British politics is that voters want honest debate. Whenever a policy problem emerges, sensible types call for the trade-offs to be laid out before an informed voting public who will carefully weigh the options. Anyone who has sat through a focus group or gone canvassing with a politician knows this is nonsense. When faced with an either/or question, British voters usually give a decisive answer: “yes”. Listen to this story.

Nowhere is this more true than immigration. A majority of voters think migration is too high, according to most polls. Almost nine out of ten Conservative voters think this; a plurality of Labour voters agree. At the same time, British voters say they want more nurses, doctors and fruit-pickers. Carers, academics, computer whizzes and students are welcome, too. Big-hearted Britons thought the country was completely right to let swathes of refugees from Ukraine and Hong Kong into the country. Britons may not much like immigration, but they are keen on immigrants. 

If so, then the Tories have come up with an impeccably botched policy response. A Conservative government that has pledged to cut immigration at the past four elections has instead overseen an increase to a record level. Net migration hit 606,000 in Britain last year, according to figures published on May 25th, as people took advantage of a more liberal post-Brexit immigration regime. The British government has thrown open the country’s doors while complaining about the people who walk through them. It is utterly incoherent. But when it comes to immigration, so are voters. 

Public opinion on immigration was not always so confused. Attitudes used to move in lockstep with numbers. In the 1940s and 1950s Britain accepted workers from across the Commonwealth, who could enter the country as they pleased. By the 1960s eight out of ten people wanted lower immigration; hard-nosed and rather racist legislation followed. Likewise, when immigration increased during the 1990s and 2000s, so did concern. This trend reached its apex in 2016, when, with just a month to go until the Brexit referendum, the government announced a then-record net influx of 330,000 people. Britain voted to leave the eu, with immigration cited as one of the main reasons. 

This tidy relationship has broken down. Immigration has increased sharply since the Brexit vote but concern about it has, if anything, gone down in the past decade. In 2012 a quarter of voters thought immigrants boosted Britain’s economy; half thought immigrants harmed it, according to British Future, a think-tank. Now those proportions have reversed. The number of people who cite immigration as the number-one problem facing the country has plunged, while issues such as lousy health care and high inflation top the worry-list. 

Attacking immigration was once an easy win for politicians. In 2015 almost 70% of voters wanted immigration reduced. Now, only 42% do. At the same time, a hard-core minority of people now want migration to increase. In 2015 only one in ten wanted this. Now about a quarter do. James Dennison and Alexander Kustov, a pair of academics, label this phenomenon a “reverse backlash”. Politicians have tried to placate voters tempted by anti-immigrant populist parties and ignored others in the process. Once-silent liberal voters have started demanding to be heard. (Intriguingly, about half of people think the British public has become less tolerant overall, even though most polling points to the opposite; when discussing immigration, Britons think in irregular verbs: “I am tolerant; you are prejudiced; he is a complete bigot.”)

Conservatives are split on how to deal with this change. For some, the increasingly liberal views of British voters when it comes to immigration should be seized on. Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, argued that voters would be happy with high levels of immigration as long as it was controlled. Judging by the positive shift in attitudes on immigrants, he was right. If the government can stop people crossing the English Channel in small boats (some 45,000 arrived last year in this manner) voters will not care about the larger numbers of migrants arriving through official channels. There are few benefits of Brexit. But Britain’s immigration policy could be one. 

For other Conservative advisers—including those currently in Downing Street—immigration simply must come down if the government is to have any chance of surviving. In their view, the liberal turn is a mirage. When voters eventually notice that immigration has, in fact, hit an all-time high they will be furious. People have mistaken a drop in salience with an increase in liberalism. This hypothesis is about to be tested in real life: if voters want control rather than reductions, what if more than half a million arrive every year? Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, thinks he knows the answer to that question, and has pledged to reduce the numbers. 

Welcome. Now get out

Taking numbers down a little is easy. Unless another war breaks out in Europe, there will be fewer refugees next year. Bringing them down a lot is harder. If the British government wants fewer people to come, it can change the law and suffer the consequences. Suella Braverman, the home secretary, has already tightened rules on the number of international students who can bring dependents, even though voters are broadly comfortable with people coming to Britain to study and universities rely on their fees. The government could crack down on fruit-pickers, but farmers in Lincolnshire would scream. Few voters would thank a government that turns away nurses. Cutting immigration comes at a cost that voters show no willingness to pay. 

Rolling out the welcome mat and then shouting at anyone who wipes their feet on it may be an imperfect approach. But from the government’s point of view, it will have to do. Voters do not want to live with the consequences of their opinions. When voters are hypocrites, politicians must be too. 

Source: British voters want more immigrants but less immigration

Government ‘hackathon’ to search for ways to use AI to cut asylum backlog

For all the legitimate worries about AI and algorithms, many forget that human systems have similar biases and the additional issue of inconsistencies (see Kahneman’s Noise). Given numbers, irresponsible not to develop these tools, but take steps to avoid bias. And I think we need to get off the mindset that every case is unique as many, if not most, have more commonalities than differences:

The Home Office plans to use artificial intelligence to reduce the asylum backlog, and is launching a three-day hackathon in the search for quicker ways to process the 138,052 undecided asylum cases.

The government is convening academics, tech experts, civil servants and business people to form 15 multidisciplinary teams tasked with brainstorming solutions to the backlog. Teams will be invited to compete to find the most innovative solutions, and will present their ideas to a panel of judges. The winners are expected to meet the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, in Downing Street for a prize-giving ceremony.

Inspired by Silicon Valley’s approach to problem-solving, the hackathon will take place in London and Peterborough in May. One possible method of speeding up the processing of asylum claims, discussed in preliminary talks before the event, involves establishing whether AI can be used to transcribe and analyse the Home Office’s huge existing database of thousands of hours of previous asylum interviews, to identify trends.

Source: Government ‘hackathon’ to search for ways to use AI to cut asylum backlog

The U.K. a role model for political diversity

A more compete survey can be found here: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn01156/.

While the UK is far ahead of Canada in terms of political leaders, less so in terms of MPs: 10 percent visible minorities compared to about 16 percent in Canada:

History shows us that governments that are representative of all their people are often better run and more meritocratic. Representative governments tend to implement more inclusive policies while at the same time elevating a diverse set of role models. These leaders bring more creative insights to the policy-making table that can lead to alternative solutions and thus make decisions that better serve everyone.

While Canadian governments have been getting more diverse in their representation over the past few years, unlike in Britain, the top jobs in Canadian politics have largely eluded the grasp of racialized and new Canadians.

As India and Pakistan gained their independence just over 75 years ago, the stage was set for a rapid wind down of the British Empire over the next two decades. Britain benefited from its post-colonial relationships by attracting waves of African, Asian and Caribbean immigrants as a postwar labour shortage forced it to look beyond its shores in order attract the workers needed to keep its economy running. This migration changed the face of cities like London, Manchester and Glasgow during the latter half of the 20th century.

Yet it was not all milk and honey for these newcomers. On arrival, many often faced racism and discrimination, which was not officially outlawed in Britain until 1965. While the struggle against systemic discrimination continues, there is no doubt that at least when it comes to political representation, the descendants of these post colonial migrants have made their mark on British society in a big way.

Today, arguably the top three political jobs in the U.K., that of British prime minister, Scottish first minister and Lord mayor of London, are held by Rishi Sunak, Humza Yousaf and Sadiq Khan respectively. Their grandparents lived under British Colonial rule in South Asia.

More importantly, they each hail from different parties across the ideological spectrum and they all rose to political heights without facing significant backlash from a British society that appears to have moved beyond seeing race as a determining factor in selecting its leaders. Across the Irish Sea, Leo Varadkar, whose father was born in Bombay (Mumbai), has twice served as prime minister of the Republic of Ireland since 2017.

So, how do we Canadians fare in comparison to our cousins in the British Isles?

Despite our overt commitment to multiculturalism and the fact that Statistics Canada projects racialized Canadians will make up between 38 to 43 per cent of the Canadian population by 2041, Canada has never had a person of colour serve as a first minister, apart from Ujjal Dosanjh’s very brief stint as premier of British Columbia more than 20 years ago.

Source: The U.K. a role model for political diversity

UK: Statistics watchdog rebukes Sunak over inaccurate asylum backlog figures

Always a risk with numbers:

Rishi Sunak and his immigration minister have been scolded by the UK statistics watchdog for using inaccurate figures to back up spurious claims about asylum seekers.

In a statement to the House of Commons in December, the prime minister claimed that the asylum backlog – 132,000 cases at the time – was half the size of the backlog left by the departing Labour government in 2010. This implied the backlog in 2010 would have been about 260,000.

In the same month, the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, and the safeguarding minister, Sarah Dines, told MPs that 450,000 and 500,000 legacy cases had been left by the Labour government.

However, the UK Statistics Authority found the statements “do not reflect the position shown by the Home Office’s statistics”.

Source: Statistics watchdog rebukes Sunak over inaccurate asylum backlog figures

‘Stop the boats’: Sunak’s anti-asylum slogan echoes Australia’s harsh policy

Of note and a cautionary tale of simplistic slogans vs complex realities:

“Stop the boats.” The white-on-red slogan on Rishi Sunak’s podium on Tuesday was – word for word – the slogan used by Tony Abbott to win the Australian prime ministership a decade ago.

To Australian audiences, so much of the rhetoric emerging from the UK over its small boats policy is reminiscent of two decades of a toxic domestic debate.

A succession of Australian prime ministers have led the rhetorical charge against asylum seekers, insisting that their arrival is an issue of “national security” and “border protection”. They are “illegals”, “queue jumpers” and “terrorists”, Australians have been told, while people-smugglers are the “scum of the earth”.

That hostile and militarised language has held a potent place in the Australian political debate for 20 years. And the language is the fundamental basis of the policies that flow from it: of deterrence and forcible turnbacks, of “offshoring” and indefinite detention.

The rhetoric not only allows governments to create for asylum seekers a “hostile environment”, it compels it from them. This too has been copied in the UK straight from the Australian playbook.

Even many of the characters are the same. Alexander Downer, Australia’s former high commissioner to the UK, argued in the Daily Mail on Tuesday in support of immediate deportation and a lifetime ban from Britain for “anyone caught trying to enter Britain by a dangerous ‘irregular route’, such as a Channel crossing in a small boat”.

Downer was a foreign minister in the conservative government of John Howard that first implemented the “Pacific solution” of warehousing refugees on foreign islands.

The Tory strategist Sir Lynton Crosby was the federal director of Howard’s conservative Liberal party, overseeing his four successful election campaigns.

And Crosby’s protege Isaac Levido, later an adviser to Boris Johnson, was deputy campaign director for the Liberal party’s 2019 election campaign, bolstering the premiership of Scott Morrison, who came to prominence as the architect of the adamantine Operation Sovereign Borders, and who famously adorned his prime ministerial office with a trophy of a boat engraved “I stopped these”.

Source: ‘Stop the boats’: Sunak’s anti-asylum slogan echoes Australia’s harsh policy

UK: Braverman seeks to backdate Channel crossings law amid fears of rush

The latest effort by the UK government. Numbers are comparable to Roxham Road. And like Roxham Road, France may be less interested than the UK in adopting measures that restrict asylum seekers from leaving France:

Refugees who cross the Channel in small boats from Tuesday could face detention and deportation under a new migration law that Labour and charities have called “unworkable” and “cruel”.

In an acknowledgment that the law will prompt a fresh rush of refugees across the Channel, the Home Office is seeking to make the illegal migration bill apply retrospectively from the day it is introduced to parliament, the Guardian has been told.

Suella Braverman, the home secretary, will ask for the proposed law to be applied from the moment she stands up in the Commons on Tuesday. The move follows criticism from unions that the legislation could result in an increase in trafficking across the Channel as refugees attempt to reach the UK before it is passed.

A Home Office source said: “If parliament passes the bill, the measures will be retrospective and apply from the date of introduction. That’s to stop people smugglers seizing on the opportunity to rush migrants across the Channel to avoid being subject to the new measures.”

Lucy Moreton, of the Immigration Services Union, said the plans would “fuel the service” for people smugglers, at least in the short term, “who could tell would-be arrivals that they needed to travel soon”.

Braverman is expected to say that under the new law, asylum claims from those who travel to the UK in small boats will be inadmissible, and the arrivals will be removed to a third country and banned from returning or claiming citizenship.

Details about how the policy will be implemented are scarce, with previous efforts to tighten procedures – such as the policy to send people to Rwanda – mired in legal challenges.

On Monday evening, a Downing Street spokesperson said Rishi Sunak had spoken to Rwanda’s president ahead of Braverman’s statement.

The prime minister and Paul Kagame “discussed the UK-Rwanda migration partnership and our joint efforts to break the business model of criminal people smugglers and address humanitarian issues”, the spokesperson said.

Source: Braverman seeks to backdate Channel crossings law amid fears of rush

Why thousands of people who thought they were British could lose …

One of the apparent collateral damage of BREXIT:

Confusion has arisen around the British government’s own understanding of its citizenship laws, following a judgment by the UK’s high court. In a ruling handed down on January 20 2023, in the case of Roehrig v Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr Justice Eyre determined that the restrictive approach applied by the Home Office since 2000 to how the children of EU nationals automatically acquire citizenship is the correct interpretation of the law.

The case in question concerns the nationality of Antoine Lucas Roehrig, who was born on October 20 2000 in the UK. His mother is a French national who had lived and worked in the UK under EU law for the five years before he was born. Roehrig claimed he acquired British citizenship at birth by virtue of section 1(1)(b) of the British Nationality Act 1981 because his mother was settled in the UK at the time he was born. The Home Office disputed that his mother met the act’s criteria for being settled and refused his application for a British passport.

Eyre’s ruling in favour of the Home Office hinges on the government’s interpretation of how the legal definition of being “settled” in the UK applied to EU nationals. It could upend the lives of many thousands of people, who have always believed that they were British.

Indefinite leave to remain

Before 1983, anyone born in the UK automatically acquired British citizenship. After that, when the British Nationality Act 1981 came into force, those born in the UK would only be considered British citizens if at least one of their parents were either a British citizen themselves or “settled” in the UK at the time of the child’s birth.

For 17 years, the Home Office deemed EU nationals exercising free movement rights in the UK to be settled and their UK-born children, thus, British. But on October 2 2000, the Home Office changed the rules. In order to be deemed “settled”, EU nationals now had to apply for and be granted indefinite leave to remain.

The problem is that many EU nationals did not apply for indefinite leave to remain, simply because they did not need it to enter and reside in the UK. Why apply for something you apparently don’t need?

The question posed by Roehrig’s case, therefore, is whether EU nationals without indefinite leave to remain could be considered “settled”. To answer this question, the high court had to determine whether EU nationals met the definition, as specified in section 50 of the British Nationality Act, of someone residing in the UK without any immigration law restrictions on the period that they could stay.

EU law, which had direct effect in the UK until Brexit, effectively created a conditional residence for EU nationals, who could reside in the UK for as long as they remained a “qualified person”. These residence rights were usually granted on the basis of being in employment. In certain circumstances, someone might be eligible through being unable to work due to illness or job loss, through living off personal savings, or through relying on a family member.

Eyre found that this conditional residence had the same effect as an immigration law restriction on the period for which EU nationals could remain in the UK. In other words, he judged that being a “qualified person” under EU free movement law did not mean you can now be deemed to have been “settled”.

This is a surprising interpretation of the law. Until Brexit, and the subsequent requirement to apply for the EU settlement scheme, many EU nationals were able to reside in the UK on the basis of EU law for decades without applying for indefinite leave to remain. They were treated as settled, and their children treated as British.

The impact of this judgment

Importantly, new rules, like those the Home Office introduced on October 2 2000, do not actually change the law. They simply alter the interpretation of the law and how to implement it.

Eyre has decided that the Home Office’s restrictive approach to British citizenship, as applied since October 2 2000, is the correct interpretation of the British Nationality Act. It follows that the previous interpretation, as implemented between 1983 and October 2 2000, was incorrect. This means that the Home Office will have mistakenly granted British citizenship to many people born during this time period to parents who, like Roehrig’s mother, were “qualified persons” under EU free movement law.

Conversely, if Roehrig appeals the judgment, and is successful, it is the restrictive approach the Home Office has taken since 2000 that will be found to be unlawful. The interpretation of the law, as implemented before October 2000, will have been the correct one. In this instance, the Home Office will have mistakenly denied British citizenship to many people born since 2000 to EU nationals who should have been considered to be “settled” in the UK.

Given that the government has greatly underestimated the number of EU nationals living in the UK before Brexit, it is not unreasonable to expect the number of people who could be affected, either way, to be in the tens of thousands.

The secretary of state’s submissions to the high court provided reassurance that the Home Office has accepted “as a matter of policy and fairness” that affected children born before October 2 2000 are British. But this is simply a matter of policy. It provides no legal certainty.

As immigration barrister Colin Yeo warns, the Home Office has nullified citizenship before, relying on the confusing logic that it was never actually held if acquired through error or Home Office mistake. At present, the policy to recognise the British citizenship of those born before October 2 2000 has been paused.

And what of those who have gone on to have their own children, thinking they had passed on their British citizenship? Guaranteeing protection for the affected group could be achieved through legislation which retroactively recognises their acquisition of British citizenship. For now, though, thousands of “possibly British” people with EU national parents are left facing great uncertainty.

Source: Why thousands of people who thought they were British could lose …

UK now among most accepting countries for foreign workers, survey finds

Interesting shift:

The UK has become one of the world’s most accepting places for foreign workers, according to a survey in 24 nations revealing a sharp increase in British acceptance of economic migration.

People in the UK emerged as less likely to think that when jobs are scarce employers should give priority to people of their own country than those in Norway, Canada, France, Spain, the US, Australia and Japan. Only Germany and Sweden were more open on that question.

In what the study’s authors described as “an extraordinary shift”, only 29% of people in the UK in 2022 said priority over jobs should go to local people, compared with 65% when the same question was asked in 2009.

The findings come as employers call for more migration to help fill more than 1m vacancies, and after the prime minister appointed the anti-immigration firebrand Lee Anderson as deputy chair of the Conservative party. He has called people arriving in small boats on the south coast “criminals” and called for them to be “sent back the same day”. Police have been deployed to hotels where asylum seekers are being housed amid violent protests by anti-immigration activists.

“It was unthinkable a decade ago that the UK would top any international league table for positive views of immigration,” said Prof Bobby Duffy, the director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, who shared the findings from the latest round of the survey exclusively with the Guardian and the BBC. “But that’s where we are now, with the UK the least likely, from a wide range of countries, to say we should place strict limits on immigration or prohibit it entirely.”

The UK ranked fourth out of 24 nations for the belief that immigrants have a very or quite good impact on the development of the country – ahead of Norway, Spain, the US and Sweden.

One factor in the shift in opinions on the question of “British jobs for British workers” may be that in 2009 the UK was in a deep recession, with more than double today’s unemployment, whereas today the economy suffers from a worker shortage, with 1.1m vacancies in the UK, 300,000 more than before the pandemic.

Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, last year urged employers to look to the British workforce in the first instance and “get local people”, although the government has widened visa programmes for seasonal workers and care staff.

Duffy said the findings showed that “it’s time to listen more carefully to public attitudes”. He said: “Politicians often misread public opinion on immigration. In the 2000s, Labour government rhetoric and policy on this issue was more relaxed than public preferences, and arguably they paid the price – but the current government is falling into the reverse trap.”

People in the UK are now the least likely of the 24 countries that participate in the World Values Survey study to think immigration increases unemployment, and second from top in thinking that immigrants fill important job vacancies.

They are very likely to say immigration boosts cultural diversity, and very unlikely to think immigration comes with crime and safety risks. However, more people in the UK think immigration leads to “social conflict” than in several other countries, including Canada, Japan and China.

The UK ranks highly for believing immigrants have a positive impact

The World Values Survey asks the same questions in countries that account for almost half the world’s population. The surveys in each country are not carried out simultaneously, so the latest UK findings are compared with data from other countries gathered since 2017.

“We have seen a shift that is quite remarkable in the UK,” said Madeleine Sumption, the director of the migration observatory at Oxford University, adding that the findings were in line with decreasing public concern about immigration since the 2016 EU referendum.

“There is speculation it is about the fact that the end of freedom of movement has created a feeling the UK now has more control,” she said.

She added that there had also been positive media coverage about what migrant workers bring to the economy, especially given worker shortages in industries such as agriculture.

“I think it potentially creates space for a less polarised debate about immigration,” she said. “To the extent there is a consensus that immigration can be positive for the country and the question was how to manage it well, you can imagine that would be more a technocratic debate.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our points-based immigration system recognises the valuable contribution that people from around the world can make to our economy, public services and wider society. It attracts the best and brightest talent from across the globe by putting skill and talent first – not where someone comes from.”

Source: UK now among most accepting countries for foreign workers, survey finds

Suella Braverman proved it again: racism is a fire the Tories love to play with

Over the top commentary but elements of truth and unfair to conflate recent politicians with those living in a different time and context, with many similarities in various countries:

Last Friday, an 82-year-old woman wrapped up warm and set off on a 200-mile round trip for a meeting that she half suspected wouldn’t even let her in. As you read this, the film of her speaking that evening has been viewed more than five million times. Which is odd, because it’s not much to look at: a wobbly side-view of a woman with white hair, intense closeups of grey cardigan. Bridgerton this is not.

But it’s the words that count. Joan Salter has got herself down to Hampshire for a public meeting with the home secretary, and now it is her turn to ask a question. As a child survivor of the Holocaust, she hears Suella Braverman demean and dehumanise refugees and it is a reminder of how the Nazis justified murdering Jews like her. So why do it?

Even as the words come out, Braverman’s face freezes. The evening so far has been a Tory activists’ love-in, which, Salter tells me later, made her nervous about being the sole dissenter. But then the home secretary responds, “I won’t apologise for the language I’ve used” – and a disturbing truth is exposed about what Britain has become.

Braverman labels those seeking sanctuary in Britain an “invasion”. Quite the word, invasion. It strips people of their humanity and pretends they are instead a hostile army, sent to maraud our borders. Her junior minister Robert Jenrick once begged colleagues not to “demonise” migrants; now he stars in videos almost licking his jowls over “the Albanians” forced on to a flight to Tirana. Salter is right to say such attitudes from the top fuel and license extremists on the ground. We saw it after the toxic Brexit campaign, when Polish-origin schoolchildren in Huntingdon were called “vermin” on cards left outside their school gates, as race and religious hate crimes soared that summer.

Today, the air is once again poisonous. Far-right groups have been visiting accommodation for asylum seekers, trying to terrify those inside – many of whom have fled terror to come here – often before sharing their videos on social media. The anti-fascist campaigners Hope Not Hate recorded 182 such jaunts last year alone, culminating in a petrol bomb tossed at an asylum centre in Dover by a man with links to far-right groups and who would post about how “all Muslims are guilty of grooming … they only rape non-Muslims”.

Unlike those big men in their big boots frightening innocent people, Salter isn’t chasing social media clout. The grandmother wants to warn us not to return to the times that sent her, at the age of three, running with her parents across Europe in search of sanctuary. She does make a mistake in yoking the home secretary to the term “swarms”. As far as I can see, this figurehead for the new Tory extremism has yet to use that vile word. But I can think of a Tory prime minister who has used that word: David Cameron, the Old Etonian never shy of blowing on a dog whistle, who made a speech denouncing multiculturalism even as Tommy Robinson’s troops marched on Luton. And Margaret Thatcher talked of how the British felt “rather swamped” by immigrants. In those venerable names from the party’s past lies the big picture about the Conservatives’ chronic addiction to racist politics.

Source: Suella Braverman proved it again: racism is a fire the Tories love to play with

Ford: Britons have wised up to the benefits of immigration. It’s about time politicians did too

Will see how immigration continues to play out in UK political strategies:

For political veterans, the recent arguments over immigration have a very familiar feel: dire warnings of crisis as official statistics show record numbers of people coming to Britain to work, study and join their families, while a dysfunctional Home Office struggles to cope with a new wave of refugees; a beleaguered government pledging to clamp down, yet lacking the means or will to do so. All are familiar plot lines from past political dramas on immigration 10 or even 20 years ago. The political responses are predictable too – social conservatives thunder about the failure, yet again, to deliver the swingeing cuts they claim voters demand. Liberals prevaricate and change the subject, afraid their arguments are doomed to fail with a sceptical electorate. All the players are locked into the same old roles. None of them seems to realise the script has changed.

One of the most remarkable, yet least remarked upon, changes in politics over the past decade has been the dramatic liberal shift in public opinion on immigration. The decades-long tendency to see immigration as a problem to be controlled is now in rapid decline. The rising view is that immigration is a resource that can deliver gains for all. A majority now see immigration as economically and culturally beneficial, as a driver of economic recovery and a vital source of support for public services. The share of voters who say migration levels should stay the same or increase has never been higher, even as migration has hit record highs.

The public now favours increased recruitment of migrants across a wide range of economic sectors, from the NHS and social care to fruit pickers and pint pullers. Some of the largest positive shifts have come in low-paid sectors struggling with shortages, such as catering and construction. Voters see a case for more migration in practically every economic sector asked about. Only migrant bankers are unwanted.

Like all big changes, this liberal shift has many sources. Demographic change is moving Britain slowly in a liberal direction on many fronts – inherently more migration-sceptical groups are shrinking a little every year, while pro-migration groups grow. Yet the change of the past decade is too broad and fast for population shifts alone to explain. Brexit may be another part of the story – voters approve of the post-Brexit points-based system, which applies equally to all labour migrants, and post-Brexit labour shortages have underlined the economic importance of migrant labour. The Covid and post-Covid period may also have generated a wider direct experience of the vital and often high risk work migrants do, from the NHS and social care, to transport and home-delivery services.

The more moderate and pragmatic public mood is not evident in government rhetoric. The Conservatives are constrained by their heavy reliance on migration sceptics attracted to the party since Brexit by the promise to “take back control”. Fears of an anti-immigrant backlash lock the party into hardline language and proposals, yet fears of an anti-austerity backlash ensure these remain empty gestures. The government needs migrant workers yet cannot bring itself to say so. Likewise, the Rwanda plan for asylum seekers is obviously unworkable yet no one in government can admit it.

This approach is now failing on numerous fronts. Voters have noticed the yawning chasm between Conservative words and deeds. Eight out of 10 disapprove of the government’s record, an all-time low. Even those who approve of the Rwanda scheme see it as gesture politics, expensive and doomed to fail. Nigel Farage remains a more attractive option for migration hardliners, while years of draconian rhetoric have alienated swing voters who now favour a more moderate approach. The Conservatives’ reputation on immigration has been trashed across the board – for decades they led Labour by large margins as the best party to handle the issue. Now Labour is favoured in most polls, the only Tory consolation being that most voters distrust both the parties equally.

A floundering government and a warming public should present opportunities for progressive politicians to make the case for open migration. So far, Labour’s response has been circumspect – balancing recognition of migrants’ economic contributions with calls for business to do more to raise the skills, productivity and wages of British workers. Yet caution brings its own risks. Tough language and vague policy may be prudent on the campaign trail, but risk storing up problems once in government.

A Labour government, like the current Conservative one, will rely on migrant contributions to grow the economy and staff public services. The party needs to make the case in opposition for the reforms it will need in government. It has made a start, pledging to make the current points-based selection system more responsive to changing economic and social needs and to junk the expensive, performative cruelty of the Rwanda scheme. Labour could go further, for example, by promising root-and-branch reform of the toxic “hostile environment” and by offering a new deal to migrants who make their lives here with liberalised citizenship rules, implemented by a swifter, cheaper and more transparent migration bureaucracy.

Labour’s instinct to tread carefully is understandable – the party has been bruised by immigration before, the public is still wary and liberalism on migration remains more prevalent in the big city seats the opposition already holds than the rural or small town seats it needs to win. Yet such risks can be overstated – the Tory voters most open to Labour are pragmatic moderates who see immigration as beneficial. The Conservatives, distrusted by voters, and terrified of a Farageist revolt on their right, cannot contest the new centre ground. Labour has a once in a generation opportunity to change the conversation on immigration. It may be a risk worth taking.

Robert Ford is co-author with Marley Morris of a new report, A New Consensus? How Public Opinion has Changed on Immigration, published by the Institute for Public Policy Research

Source: Britons have wised up to the benefits of immigration. It’s about time politicians did too