All the main parties are nervous about the politics of immigration, and figures in YouGov’s latest poll for the Sunday Times suggest why. Few of us think that immigrants generally play a positive role in British life. The incessant, and often badly-informed stories, year after year, about crimes committed by black offenders, migrant families who ‘jump the housing list’ and ‘welfare tourists’ who come here to hoover up generous benefits – they have taken their toll.
Q. Some people say that many immigrants to Britain play a positive role - bringing skills we need and fresh ideas, starting new businesses, enhancing British culture and helping to keep vital public services going, such as the NHS. As a rough guess, what proportion of immigrants to Britain in recent years do you think are making a positive contribution to British life?
|% saying...||All||Con||Lab||Lib Dem||UKIP|
|All / most of them||23||19||32||43||8|
|Around half of them||21||27||18||23||19|
|A minority / none of them||48||49||42||22||71|
With figures like these, politicians have good reason to fret. When Ed Miliband and Labour’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, intervened in the debate last week, they did so at a time when almost half of Labour’s own supporters think only a minority of immigrants play a positive role in British life.
As for David Cameron, the most telling figures show how public fears over immigration are boosting Ukip. Among those who say most immigrants play a positive role, just 3% say they would vote Ukip. But among those who say the number is ‘very few’ or ‘none’, Ukip’s vote share jumps to 21% (though only 1% of this group back the BNP, whose support has collapsed).
Given these perceptions, it’s not surprising that big majorities want to restrict the access of new immigrants to welfare benefits and the NHS. And, as might be expected, those who like immigrants least like the idea of restrictions most.
However, the difference between ‘pro-immigrant’ and ‘anti-immigrant’ voters is not as great as might be expected. Thus, among those who say few, if any, immigrants play a positive role, 89% would support changing the rules to restrict welfare benefits to those who have been here at least a year – but so do 77% of those who think most immigrants play a positive role.
What about a similar 12-month rule for accessing non-emergency treatment on the NHS? Support among the same two groups is 86% and 56% respectively – a larger gap than with welfare, but a reform still backed by a majority of those Britons who are broadly pro-immigrant.
Some people say that these figures simply show how pernicious have been all the anti-immigrant stories of recent years, and that rather than change the rules, politicians should work far harder to stress the truth, that immigrants typically claim fewer welfare benefits and make fewer demands on the NHS than non-immigrant families.
That looks to me like a tough ambition to fulfil. But even if it were achieved, I doubt that many voters would change their minds on curbs on welfare benefits and the NHS.
This is because the arguments over these curbs play into a far wider debate about public spending. YouGov research has shown consistently that people see too little connection between the taxes they pay and the way the government spends the money. They like the broad idea of the contributory principle – that people should pay in when they can and obtain help when they need it. They have great difficulty nowadays seeing the link between the two. Immigration is only one facet of this debate; scroungers, cheats, individual and corporate tax avoiders, and the sheer, mind-blowing complexity of the system, also play their part.
David Cameron’s mantra, ‘we are all in this together’, strikes precisely the right tone. His trouble is that few voters think he really means it – or, if he does, they don’t think he knows how to apply it. And it’s not just Cameron who has work to do. Voters don’t believe politicians in any party have all the answers.
That is why the debate over the access of new immigrants to welfare benefits and the NHS should really be seen as part of a much wider national conversation about how and when we all help each other. At the heart of this, politicians across the board must find ways in these austere times to devise a system whose principles we can all understand and which works in practice.