8:40 am - March 7th 2013
“Most of what we’ve been saying about immigration for the last 40 years has backfired, and not worked for us,” said our American host quite bluntly. We were sitting around a table where the new offices of British Future would later be.
A group of Americans campaigners had come over to explain why, despite millions of dollars worth of lobbying, their debate on immigration remained negative and unfruitful. Our quest was to learn how we could avoid making the same mistakes, though it quickly became obvious we were in fact making the same mistakes as them.
There were three common responses to discussions on immigration that didn’t really work, our hosts said. In some cases they actually made people more resentful of immigrants and made the situation worse.
1) When we automatically brand people who want to talk about immigration as ‘racist’.
This response didn’t just fail to convince people, but drove up resentment and therefore led to more anger against immigrants. No doubt some people who oppose immigration are racist but there’s a spectrum here and some knee-jerk reactions are very counter-productive.
2) Telling people they don’t know the facts.
That the public is woefully uninformed on immigration is simply a fact. But there are two problems with this approach: first, people easily forget statistics that are quoted at them. They are more likely to remember narratives and stories (that the tabloid press use effectively). Secondly, the implication is that people are stupid. And when you call someone stupid they become less likely to want to listen.
3) We say immigration benefits us all economically, overall.
The overall impact of immigration may be positive but it won’t be uniform – some will see a positive effect and others negative. It goes without saying that those negatively affected (mostly poorer unskilled workers) will effectively hear us saying they should suck it up because the overall impact is positive.
There will be caveats for all these points above, but what unites everyone on this list above (with many on the left) is that no one likes their beliefs being challenged. If presented with evidence that proves them wrong, people make excuses. Or they reach for explanations that will justify their views. This is common human behaviour.
This is also why we keep losing the debate on immigration – we think people are misinformed, need to be taught facts and should not be listened to. That just makes them want to ignore us.
Why doesn’t Labour change the narrative?
This is the question almost every leftie asks. But probe it further and it quickly falls apart, because it is much easier said than done.
Labour is an opposition party which already struggles to get attention. Even if Ed Miliband said everything that lefties wanted, the media would distort it and re-interpret it for their audiences. And how many times would he have to say it before it got through to people?
Furthermore, people hostile to immigration would just ignore the speech and explain away the facts. This is how people react. This is how the world works. Just making a speech on immigration facts, even repeatedly, just wouldn’t do much to change the narrative.
I’m not saying Labour should pander and I’m not saying Labour should bring back the odious Phil Woolas and triangulate. I’m just pointing out that there are practical limitations to how much Labour can do.
So what is Labour doing then?
Ed Miliband understands that New Labour triangulation won’t work any more. His view has always been that immigration needs to be re-framed as an economic issue (‘a class issue’ – he called it), to help poorer workers at the bottom. He has thus far resolutely stuck to that view.
But you simply cannot take the public with you unless they trust you and think you understand their concerns. This is also basic psychology. So, first, Miliband has to gain their trust with a bit of humility and apologies. Once enough people think he’s trying to solve a difficult issue, only then will they start listening to his solutions.
But there’s another question too – what can left organisations do from the outside to change the debate? As the guys from America pointed out even this has been counter-productive in many ways. This should be the topic of another article.
In the meantime, have heart. Immigration has become a less poisoned debate in America recently only because minorities flexed their muscles and got President Obama elected twice. Though they are a smaller proportion of the British population here cannot exercise the same power, several key Tory commentators (esp. Lord Ashcroft) have noted that Tory hostility to immigration did cost them votes too.
We are a long way away from the days when Tories campaigned on immigration by saying ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour‘. There is plenty of reason to be positive about the future.
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
· Other posts by Sunny Hundal
Story Filed Under: Blog ,Immigration ,Race relations
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