Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 19 December 2023

How a Labour government could be the tipping point for public discussion about immigration


Just over a year ago I wrote about the tipping point in public support for Brexit. The tipping point (in reality tipping points) is when trying to make Brexit work becomes an electoral liability for Labour, and they would gain votes in marginal seats if they instead talked about rejoining the EU’s customs union or single market. Despite what John Curtice has recently said, I agree with Chris Grey that the tipping point will not be before the next election, but it will only be hastened if Labour win that election.

This post asks the same question for public views on immigration. They are obviously linked, because attitudes to immigration will influence attitudes to the Single Market. At the moment both the Conservatives and Labour are saying they think net immigration numbers should come down substantially, and a majority of the public still think immigration levels should be reduced. However since around the Brexit referendum, public opinion on immigration has shifted substantially, as this chart from the Migration Observatory shows.

At first some speculated that this shift was because Brexit voters assumed that leaving the Single Market had solved their immigration numbers problem, but that idea must have been well and truly shattered by the recent figures for net immigration. To some extent more favourable views about immigration may reflect a backlash against populist rhetoric. However in the UK I think instead the major reason for this shift is a perception that immigration is no longer about more people looking for a fixed number of jobs, but instead a realisation that immigration is in large part about firms or organisations needing additional labour.

In an important sense Brexit has facilitated this change in perspective, both because of the end of free movement and because of well publicised job shortages in particular sectors. John Burn-Murdoch presents evidence along these lines in the FT (see also here), but you can also see this if people are asked about immigration to particular jobs.

For most of these occupations, more people wanted an increase than a decrease in immigration, even though they would say they wanted less immigration overall.

In this respect immigration is a bit like taxes. If people are asked whether they would like lower taxes they generally say yes, but if they are asked whether they want lower taxes and lower spending on health, education and welfare they generally say no. Equally if they are just asked about immigration you are likely to get a different response than if they are asked about immigrants to staff the NHS, for example, particularly if they are aware of NHS staff shortages. Note that, just with taxes, these are not two equally valid questions. With our current immigration regime for sure (and in practice before that) a question that links immigrants to the jobs that immigrants will do makes much more sense. The gradual reduction in opposition to immigration since Brexit noted above may be because some people are making this connection without needing to be prompted.

If this analysis is correct, will this trend towards more favourable views on immigration continue? This may depend in part on the state of the UK labour market. With a probable Labour government committed to increasing growth, it seems likely that we will see a strong labour market for at least some of Labour's first term in office. This, together with the impact of demographic change (younger people are more liberal), suggests that the trend towards a more favourable view about immigration will continue. Working in the opposite direction is that, under a Labour government, the right wing press will go back to their pre-Brexit ways with stories about ‘waves’ of immigrants who live on benefits and steal jobs, and this in turn will influence the broadcast media.

The tipping point for Brexit is when a Labour government, whose politicians are not as constrained by ideology or their members/donors/newspaper owners, find it is no longer to their electoral advantage to pretend to be ‘making Brexit work’. This happens the moment Labour would gain more votes than they would lose in key marginals by, say, joining the EU’s customs union or single market. In principle this shouldn’t just depend on what voters tell pollsters about these options, but also indirect effects like benefits to growth.

Is there a similar tipping point for immigration? As with Brexit, that tipping point would be well beyond half of the population taking a favourable view of immigration. This is because our electoral FPTP system is biased towards social conservatives, so taking a pro-immigration stance could still harm Labour in marginal seats even if only a minority of voters want less immigration.

However I’m not sure Labour have the luxury of waiting for their pollsters to tell them the tipping point on immigration has been reached. In this respect immigration is not like Brexit. With Brexit Labour can move gradually in the direction of greater cooperation with the EU from day one, and judge the viability of key steps in reversing the Brexit process. With immigration Labour will find it much more difficult to talk about numbers being too high initially, and then switch to stressing the benefits of immigration later on. In other words, with Brexit the direction of travel is the same, whereas with immigration it is not.

Labour’s discourse on immigration today, in opposition, is almost too easy. With the Conservative government simultaneously presiding over record immigration, and its MPs demanding immigration be lower, Labour’s work is being done for it. Those voters that want lower immigration will think the Conservatives have failed them, while many others will be rightly appalled at Conservative rhetoric and actions on asylum.

The situation will become very different after Labour has been in power for a year or two. The Conservative opposition (including its press) will be saying immigration is too high, and now it will be a Labour government that will be seen as responsible for immigration numbers.

Any government, Labour or Conservative, faces a strong trade-off with immigration policy. Actually restricting the ability of immigrants to fill jobs in the UK hurts the economy, which is why successive governments (of both parties) have been very reluctant to do this. Instead governments tend to resort to different sorts of gimmicks or cruelty, where Sunak’s latest measures are a prime example of the latter. However neither gimmicks or selective cruelty will have much impact on immigration numbers, and so over years those who are concerned about immigration numbers will turn on the government. A government that talks the talk on reducing immigration but fails to bring numbers down is storing up trouble for itself.

With popular attitudes to immigration becoming more divided, an alternative approach which Labour could follow may be politically wiser. Instead of seeing immigration as a numbers problem, Labour could instead focus on the role immigration plays in helping the economy. It could actively oppose the Conservative narrative, rather than presenting a slightly milder version of it. By presenting the benefits of immigration in terms of additional output and better public services, it could strengthen the growing numbers who are in favour of immigration for specific professions. It might even make pollsters stop asking questions about immigration in abstract, and instead link immigration to the jobs immigrants do. [1]

Taking this approach would mean no targets for immigration numbers, or even aspirations to reduce numbers, as the media will treat these as targets. It can involve improving pay and training to reduce the need for immigration to particular sectors, but if that influences immigration numbers at all it will take many years to do so. Labour could also talk about the contribution overseas students make to universities, and how they save taxpayers money. It could talk about the UK taking its fair share of refugees, rather than trying to pretend it can just take a selected few.

Is such a shift in rhetoric the pipe dream it may seem today? The key electoral argument for such a shift in approach from Labour is that the alternative of doing what it and Conservative governments have done in the past does not work. Pretending to be concerned about immigration, but not doing anything significant to reduce numbers because of the impact this will have on the economy, has played a key role in bringing down three administrations. Immigration was the Conservatives main weapon against New Labour before the Global Financial Crisis, it was key in bringing about Brexit and the end of the Cameron administration, and it is currently doing Sunak’s government no favours either.

With the public shift in attitudes to immigration, the next Labour government may be the point where being honest with the public about immigration and the economy could pay electoral dividends. However to work effectively that change has to begin the moment Keir Starmer walks through the doors of No.10.

Have a great Christmas, and let's hope for a new start in 2024

[1] Such an approach will not convince those who oppose immigration on principle because of xenophobia or racism, but such voters will probably go to the Conservatives or another right wing party anyway.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.