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Leader comment: Migration? Electorate not so bothered

07 June 2024

SO, OFF we go. Unfulfillable promises about an ill-defined problem using arbitrary figures to convince uninformed people. Put like that, it could apply to any number of pre-election promises, but, most significantly, it relates to the issue of migration. The return of Nigel Farage to the political forum means that discourse about migration is likely to dominate this election. Any attempt to play it down will be discouraged by the various party managers, who argue that, because Reform UK is making it a key issue, the Conservatives will have to follow suit — and, because Labour needs to win over Conservative voters, it will comply. This would be a mistake, however. As recently as February, the Immigration Attitudes Tracker organised by Ipsos reckoned that immigration was a deciding factor for only 37 per cent of voters. Other issues were more important: the NHS (61 per cent), inflation/cost of living (56 per cent), and managing the economy (39 per cent). As for debate about immigration, 34 per cent think that it is not discussed enough, but 53 per cent think that it is talked about too much or just the right amount.

As for those immigration attitudes themselves, the majority of people surveyed believed immigration to be a positive thing for the country. Given the relentlessly negative message from the Government throughout its time in office, this shows a reassuring independence of thought among the electorate. The figures are relatively close: 40 per cent positive, 35 per cent negative, but, taken from a survey conducted away from the heat of an election campaign, they are arguably the best indication of latent belief. The attitude tracker threw up other surprises, too: nobody seems to trust politicians much on this issue, but Labour’s trust score of 33 per cent was higher than both the Conservatives (22 per cent) and Reform UK (26 per cent). And part of this dissatisfaction is not because politicians are not tough enough: 28 per cent criticised the Government for creating a negative or fearful environment for migrants, and 25 per cent believed that they were not treating asylum-seekers well.

Thus, attitudes in the UK are not nearly as monochrome or negative as they are often made out to be. If the politicians were to take this on board, they could, perhaps, trust the electorate to look at the migration figures in a little more detail instead of focusing on the headline figure. There are sensible reasons that international students are included in the overall figure (excluding them would bring the net migration figure down from 685,000 to less than 100,000); but their positive value to the country is undisputed: they should never be part of a negative story — but then, neither should any of the other permitted immigrants, or any genuine asylum-seekers. The Bishop of Dover said on Question Time last week that migration “needs to stop being kicked around like a political football”. It is time to blow the whistle on the Migration Fantasy League.

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