Gaining trust on immigration is non-negotiable
Demonstrating competence on the number one issue voters care about is not incompatible with taking a more compassionate stance
As party after party was kicked out of office in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the centre left saw confirmation of their analysis of what decides elections: it’s the economy, stupid! Now, in the wake of the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the Danish People’s party and their new right brethren, the left is starting to remember that that motto was just one element of Bill Clinton’s campaign strategy. Other things matter too – and today identity and immigration matter hugely.
Our polling for the TUC of referendum voters found that just 20 per cent of leave voters said the economy was one of the three most important issues in deciding how to vote. Social attitudes were more closely correlated with voting leave than income level. Throughout the last parliament in the UK, doubts about Labour on immigration were as high as doubts about its stewardship of the economy, and it was traditional Labour votes going to the UK Independence party (and Scottish National party) that did for the party.
The rise of identity politics is not, primarily, a result of changing attitudes to migrants. Migration has never been popular, but if anything, Britain is becoming more liberal. Most voters, including, most leave voters, think EU citizens already here should be able to stay. Our polling shows the proportion who think migration should be reduced down 11 points over the last two years (though it is still the case that a large majority of people, including most young people, most BME voters and most remain voters want a reduction).
Instead, the shift in attitudes is a result of a mixture of other factors.
The scale and pace of change has transformed the issue. Negative attitudes to immigration were not so decisive in the past; but as net migration rose, the proportion saying it was a priority for government rose with it. The leave vote was strongest in places with the fastest increase in immigration (not the places with most migrants).
When voters are concerned about control of our borders, they are not being irrational. Borders are out of control – they know EU law requires free movement. They also see pictures of Sangatte and its successors and feel the government does not have a grip on the asylum process.
Pro-immigration attitudes have come to be seen as an elite project to change the country. The collapse of trust in the elite has therefore infected attitudes to cosmopolitanism. People who think ‘the establishment’ broadly contribute to our country tended to vote remain. The much bigger group who think the establishment is in it for themselves voted leave by 58 to 41.
Tackling this problem will require a fundamental shift in the way the centre left does politics. Just as New Labour had to put fiscal and economic trust at the heart of its pitch, so any plausible government will need to emphasise control over migration and embrace British – and English – identity.
This does not mean adopting the policies of the right. We need a distinctively progressive approach that is honest to voters about the challenges and is located in core values of community, reciprocity and work.
We also need an overall reputation for competence that allows voters to believe we can deal with an issue that successive governments have failed on for the last 20 years.
The left has to take back the idea of control. Learning from the way the Democrats have made the case for regularisation of undocumented migrants by embracing strong controls and checks on those who become citizens, we can propose migration policy that brings order to the chaotic system we now have. In so doing, we can win the case for compassion – our polling finds that even a majority of leave voters support ‘a significant increase [in] in the number of refugees Britain accepts’ provided there is a strong system to identify legitimate claims.
Just as economic competence is a non-negotiable criterion for government, so trust on migration and identity is. The left may not like it, but the only way through is to accept reality and try and shape in a progressive direction.
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