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Sorry, But There's No Reason to Listen to Public Opinion on Immigration

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In his new party political broadcast (PPB) on immigration, Ed Miliband says: "Millions of people in this country are concerned about immigration. And if people are concerned about it, then the Labour Party I lead is going to be talking about it... It's not prejudice when people worry about immigration, it's understandable. And we were wrong in the past when we dismised people's concerns."

People's "concerns". That's what seems to drive the immigration debate (or what passes for a debate) in this country. Concerns.

Remember David Cameron's speech on the subject in April 2011? "This time last year, we said we would listen to people's concerns and get immigration under control. Today I can confidently say that we are getting there."

Or Tony Blair's speech on immigration in 2004? "There are real concerns; they are not figments of racist imagination; and they have to be tackled precisely in order to sustain a balanced and sensible argument about migration."

Well I'm sorry to have to say this but I for one am fed up about people's "concerns" on this particular political issue. Our elected politicians won't, or perhaps can't, say this but the fact is that the great British public doesn't have a clue about immigration. Why then should we base our immigration policies on public opinion, and people's "concerns", when those very same people are so woefully uninformed and ignorant about the true levels of immigration into the UK? The levels of benefits that migrants - especially asylum-seekers - receive? Their proficiency with the English language?

In February 2011, reporting on an international survey carried out by Transatlantic Trends, the BBC's Mark Eaton observed:

"Asked to estimate the proportion of foreign-born people living in the UK, the average guess is 29.4%. The true figure according to OECD data is 10.8%, lower than Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and the USA. When informed of that, the proportion of British respondents thinking it was 'too many' fell from 59% to 46%..."

See what happens when you give people information about immigration? Accurate information, that is?

Yet ignorance on this subject abounds - and is cynically exploited by the likes of Theresa May, Nigel Farage, Sir Andrew Green and, of course, Richard Desmond. Consider the evidence collated by Rob Ford of Manchester University for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration:

"Research shows that the British public generally holds an exaggerated view of the scale and impacts of immigration in the UK, consistently estimating numbers of migrants or asylum seekers in excess of official statistics... In 2002, the average public estimate of migration levels was more than double the actual level."

So why give such weight to the opinions of people who, let's be blunt, don't know what they're talking about? Why fetishise ignorant and prejudiced views and spin them as 'legitimate concerns'? Would we stop trying to tackle climate change if polls showed the public thinks it isn't real or isn't a threat? Of course not: we'd redouble our efforts to try and educate and inform the public of the facts. Why can't we treat the arguments around immigration in the same way?

Wait, says Miliband in his PPB, voters think the the pace of change is too fast; "people," he argues, "can see their wages undercut".

In fact, as Ford reveals:

"Public attitudes towards migration are generally not driven by direct experiences. When voters are asked if migrants have a negative impact nationally (on jobs, crime, local services), around 60-70% say yes.

"When asked about the same impacts locally only around 10-20% reports a problem (IPSOS-MORI, 2008; YouGov, 2009). Voters seem to perceive migration as something which causes problems elsewhere."

So why not, as the leader of a centre-left, progressive political party in one of the world's wealthiest countries, challenge this false and pernicious idea? Why not correct the claim that millions of migrants struggle with the English language, when the official figures suggest otherwise?

Why not reject the charge that low-skilled migrants from eastern Europe have had a significant and negative impact on 'native' wages, when most academic studies suggests otherwise?

Yes, Miliband's message on migration is more nuanced and progressive than those of his predecessors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Yes, the Labour leader isn't a cynical populist (and is, in fact, the son of two refugees). Nonetheless, wittingly or unwittingly, he and his party continue to operate and communicate within a frame set by the anti-immigrant right. All the talk is of threats, costs and controls, rather than opportunities, benefits and contributions.

Well, what else can we do about the anti-immigration views of the voters, cry the Labour right? What do we do with their "concerns"?

As my former colleague, Daniel Trilling, author of the excellent new book on the far right, Bloody Nasty People, tweeted last Friday, in the wake of the Eastleigh result:

"One way to 'take voters concerns on immigration seriously' is to make a strong pro-immigration, anti-racist case."

Indeed. (Oh, and let's be clear: lots of anti-immigration members of the public aren't of course motivated by racism, xenophobia and/or fear of 'the other'... but..um, er... lots are. Sorry.)

It shouldn't need repeating but the job of a politician is to try and lead and shape public opinion - not just blindly follow it. Especially on an issue where most voters simply don't have access to the facts and end up getting the numbers wrong time and again.

The message from the opinion polls on immigration for politicians - especially of the Ed Miliband liberal-left variety - is that the voters need informing, not indulging. I can't help but be reminded of one of my favourite lines from The West Wing - from spin doctor and pollster Joey Lucas to deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman:

"You say that these numbers mean dial it down. I say they mean dial it up. You haven't gotten through. There are people you haven't persuaded yet. These numbers mean dial it up. Otherwise you're like the French radical, watching the crowd run by and saying, 'There go my people. I must find out where they're going so I can lead them.'"

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