Immigration and Integration: A Difficult, but Necessary, Conversation

14/12/2012 16:26 GMT | Updated 13/02/2013 10:12 GMT

Ed Miliband gave a complex, nuanced and policy heavy speech on identity, immigration and integration on Friday. This was a brave move. Just why it was a brave move was illustrated by the instant reactions to it. The speech was attacked from the right for not doing enough, with Sir Andrew Green of Migration Watch, who dismissed "trivial proposals" insufficient to tackle "the enormous problem of integration" and Isabel Hardman of the Spectator dismissing the speech as "address[ing] the warm fuzzy feelings of community" without getting into the "meaty issues".

Over on the left, Daniel Trilling of the New Statesman lambasted a speech as "hollow populism and tired stereotypes" which "blam[ed] immigrants for their own experiences of racism". The mainstream media more broadly focussed on the issue of segregation and integration, ignoring the large stretches of the speech celebrating diversity and highlighting the profound attitude on culture and identity issues in Britain over the past few generations.

These diverse reactions highlight the difficulties any left wing politician faces on immigration. Any proposal will be dismissed by commentators on the right as tokenism which does nothing to address the real issues, and by many on the left as pandering to prejudices which should be challenged. On top of this, the media will reinterpret any message on immigration and identity in terms of its own negative dominant narrative of segregation and division, regardless of whether this accurately reflects the content.

Those, like Trilling, who seem to think this was Miliband's intention all along should consider recent research by my colleague Maria Sobolewska showed how left wing papers such as the Guardian were the most likely to use polling data to portray British Muslims as poorly integrated and a security threat (a "spin" rarely supported by the evidence). Before blaming Ed Miliband's spin doctors for the framing of his speech, left wing commentators should consider how their outlets have often been complicit in propagating a divisive narrative on race, immigration and identity, and reinterpreting the evidence in terms of this narrative.

Let's move on from the spin and engage with what Miliband actually said, and proposed. He made, in my view, three big and impotant contributions. Firstly, he highlighted the remarkable shifts in British attitudes on race and identity over the past few generations:

"Division, racism and prejudice were features of everyday life for far too long in the Twentieth Century. Many people here are too young to remember but it is only a few decades ago, signs said "no blacks and no Irish" in pubs and landlords' windows. Think about how people would see that today. Today that is unthinkable and unacceptable. That is a sign of how far Britain has come. So I believe we have a positive story to tell."

This is a big, important point to make. British attitudes on race and identity have changed profoundly, but because the change has been gradual, and inter-generational, it is often missed. In my own research, I found that 60% or more of those who grew up in the 1950s or earlier opposed mixed marriages, but 20% or less of those growing up in the 1990s did, and recent work by British Future has shown this trend continuing to the present day, despite a difficult and divisive decade on identity issues. The census has shown sharp increases in mixed race relationships and mixed race identity. Researchers looking at national identity have shown how younger generations of Britons no longer consider ancestry or cultural heritage an important marker of being British in the way their pre-migration grandparents did. Data from the Transatlantic Trends surveys shows that Britons are very positive about the integration of the "second generation" - including British born Muslims. All this evidence thus points to a more diverse, integrated British society, and a more inclusive British identity. This is a trend worth celebrating: a powerful riposte to those who believe Britain is, in Trevor Phillips' words, "sleepwalking to segregation".

The second point Miliband made was that this impressive progress should not blind us to the popular anxieties which have emerged over the past decade, in response to the largest inflow of migrants Britain has ever experienced. It is at this point that Miliband starts losing many on the left, who argue that such concerns have no basis in the evidence, so acknowledging them risks legitimating prejudice. This risk is real. But there is a risk in the other direction: critiquing anxieties that are deeply and sincerely held by many voters risks alienating them. British voters are clearly very sensitive to this kind of thing - hence the widespread (though largely mythical) belief that people are "not allowed" to talk about immigration without being accused of racism. Those who would lecture Britain's voters on how their anxieties have no basis in the evidence should remember that this is what they will hear. A voter who thinks you believe his anxieties are an expression of prejudice isn't likely to pay much attention to what you propose to do about them.

This point is worth making, because British anxieties about the cultural impact of immigration are real, widespread, and intensifying. In the most recent British Social Attitudes survey my co-authors and I asked Britons whether they felt the cultural impact of immigration had been positive or negative, replicating a question asked a decade ago. In 2002, the public as a whole was modestly positive: 44% had a positive view and 33% a negative view, for a +11 overall rating. In our 2011 survey, they were much more sceptical: 34% positive and 48% negative, -14 overall. Yet the most striking findings come when we break down attitudes by social groups. We found evidence of a profound polarisation over immigration and culture: while middle class, educated, socially liberal voters' views remained positive in both surveys, views among working class, unqualified, socially conservative voters started negative in 2002, and became sharply more so over the decade. Commentators on the left need to recognise this profound, and growing, disconnect between how they view the cultural impact of immigration and how it is viewed in struggling working class communities.

This gap matters politically, because immigration and its effects have risen to the top of the political agenda for many voters, and has remained there. The proportion naming it as one of the most important political problems in MORI's regular surveys rose from less than 10% in 1999 to nearly 40% in 2007. It has hovered around 25% in the past couple of years, making it the most important non-economic issue to voters. Voters' perceptions of how the Labour government handled immigration were overwhelmingly negative, and the issue certainly cost Labour votes - my research with Matthew Goodwin has shown how it was (and remains) a primary motive driving support for both the BNPand UKIP, who both drew strongest support from older white working class voters, often former Labour loyalists. Forthcoming research from Geoffrey Evans and Kat Chzen of Oxford University shows how immigration was a central motive driving defections away from Labour in 2010, possibly more important than the financial crisis. The reason? Voters didn't blame Labour for a global recession, but did blame them for mass immigration.

To dismiss these concerns as mere racism and intolerance is, in my view, simplistic and unfair. Our British Social Attitudes research also demonstrates remarkable pragmatism and flexibility on migration. The British support the migration of professionals and students, from anywhere in the world. They do discriminate against migrants from non-white regions of the world, but far less so than Britons asked similar questions did in the 1980s, and origin region is a distant second to qualifications as a driver of public views. Research by the Migration Observatory also shows how voters' concerns are focussed on unskilled labour and asylum seekers, and voters are quite comfortable with inflows of skilled workers and students. Contra the narrative so often peddled by Migration Watch and the right wing tabloid press, the British value and support many forms of migration. Contra the narrative on the left, when voters do oppose migration, it is not always due to unthinking xenophobia.

Ed Miliband is right to highlight the shift towards a more diverse, tolerant Britain because this shift is real. I think he is right to talk about the anxieties many voters hold about the impact of migration for the same reason. He is right to point that such concerns often have their root in the pace and extent of change which has been more rapid and more profound over the past decade than in any decade in Britain's history. Very often these concerns are not rooted in direct every day experience. They are more diffuse, and often rooted in misinformation and second hand experience. The academic evidence often suggests such anxieties are exaggerated: Britain is not becoming more segregated or divided, and language problems in schools and neighbourhoods are nowhere near as extensive as many people perceive them to be. The media do play a negative role here, exaggerating the negative effects of migration. But these concerns are nonetheless real, and deeply felt. Engaging with them, and finding ways of addressing them, without legitimating arguments often driven by ignorance and exaggeration, is a very tough balancing act, but a necessary one. Labour suffered a profound and costly loss of public trust on immigration. Rebuilding this trust is vital and requires engaging with what voters do think, not telling them what they ought to think.

The third big thing Miliband offered in his speech was a series of concrete (though not always very detailed) policy proposals. The most prominent was support for ensuring that all migrants and minorities can learn English. This is an extremely popular idea : over 75% of British respondents to the 2008-9 Transatlantic Trends survey supported providing extra English lessons to migrants. It also makes practical sense - poor English is clearly going to throw up barriers to economic and social integration - and by addressing public integration concerns helps to build support for a more liberal migration policy. A 2010 survey by Transatlantic Trends shows how: while only 10% of Britons supported admitting immigrants with poor English, this rose 56% support for immigrants with good English. Providing greater resources for English language learning thus makes practical and political sense.

Miliband also tied the cultural anxieties about immigration to underlying economic problems - in particular housing shortages, abusive practices in the rental property sector, and abusive practices by many recruitment agencies. Miliband argued that such practices have lead to the segregation of immigrants from natives. It is questionable whether this is an extensive problem, but it is certainly perceived as one. Taking action on these things is practically sensible - all of these issues are real ones, and deserving of attention. It is also symbolically important - reflecting a more nuanced view of how economics, culture and perception interact. This is not the language of David Blunkett, demonising asylum seekers, or Gordon Brown's BNP-tinged "British Jobs for British Workers". This is an argument about how underlying economic concerns shared by all communities - scarce housing, unscrupulous landlords and abusive employers - can divide one community against another. This is a more mature and sensible way to approach the problem.

Overall, I think there is much to commend about Ed Miliband's speech. He has engaged with an explosive issue, one which he could easily have shied away from. He has recognised, and spoken eloquently about, the positive story of identity change in Britain, while also acknowledging and seeking to address the real anxieties these change has produced. The speech was not perfect, of course. The use of the term "segregation" has already functioned as a red rag to journalists of all persuasions, leading to an excessive focus on this in reporting and analysis. This was predictable and avoidable. There was also not enough here about the reality of continued prejudice and discrimination in Britain, and the damage it does. The motivation for this - a desire to engage anxious voters sensitive to the charge of racism - is understandable, but the speech perhaps leans too far in the other direction. I hope that in future statements Miliband will devote more attention to the challenges prejudice continues to pose - and some concrete proposals for addressing these.

Nonetheless, this was a brave, nuanced and important intervention. It was a bolder and more novel speech than its critics on either the left or the right seem willing to acknowledge, and will hopefully represent the start of a more reasonable and positive conversation on the left about immigration and the public concerns it generates.