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UK Immigration: It’s Not Numbers But Narrative That Matters

Migration figures from the Office for National Statistics are out today. They show that immigration hit a high before the Brexit vote, but has fallen slightly since.

The Brexiters may see this as a sign that Brexit has worked to stop immigration, and for those proud of a diverse and open UK, it may be a sign that our international reputation has been damaged to the extent that people are less likely to come here.

But the truth is that these statistics don’t really matter. Not just because of the ‘post-truth’ phenomena, that these numbers are seriously flawed, or that it’s too soon to tell what the impact of Brexit on immigration might be. But because whether up or down, these statistics will do nothing to change the current narrative on immigration being promoted by the mainstream media, nor the ever-growing discontent with immigration within large sections of the public. Just yesterday, we heard an MP state that people are scared to talk about Christmas – a comment pandering to anti-immigration sentiment, and which is not only completely misleading, but extremely unhelpful for community relations.

Polls show that the proportion of Britons who admit to being racially prejudiced has risen since the start of the millennium. Even before the Brexit vote, this figure was around 29% - and this is undoubtedly an underestimation. More recently, Pew Research Centre found that a massive 31% of people felt that diversity makes Britain a worse place to live.

And then there’s the recent surge in racially motivated attacks. Seven days before the EU referendum, pro-refugee MP Jo Cox was murdered in her constituency. In the week before and after the vote, reported incidents of hate crimes rose by 42% - a rise believed to be the worst on record.

So how do we get the immigration debate back on track? One is to have real solutions. Instead of talking about border controls and lying about reducing immigration numbers, we should be talking about safeguards for workers – and by that I mean all workers, native and migrant. The General Secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, recently proposed that to tackle undercutting, any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad could only do so if they are either covered by a union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining. Such solutions get to the heart of problems in the labour market and would help us move away from an unhelpful and misleading focus on the number of immigrants.

More broadly, however, we need to change the narrative, and this is a harder job. Turning the tide on such deeply embedded views and prejudices is of course a long term project. Helpfully, the EU debate gives us a clue as to where to start. While the Leave campaign magnified pre-existing negative ideas and myths on immigration, the Remain campaign avoided the issue. The positive case for immigration was seldom made, apart from to say that immigrants pay taxes – not exactly a message that pulls at the heart strings. Even now, politicians on the left are focused almost entirely on building a narrative of a ‘left behind’ – and, importantly, ‘white’ – working class, who are angry about inequality, again ignoring the anti-immigration sentiment that has gripped this country. The EU referendum result was at least in part to do with racism, and to deny this is to bury ones head in the sand.

So the first step is to admit there is a problem. The second is to start to tell the positive stories. While British athletes such as Mo Farah are helpful in this regard, we need to go much further. I was struck recently when listening to the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who on a popular American late night TV show had this to say about why Canada is welcoming refugees: “One of the great things about Canadian culture is we figured out that thing are done by addition. You take the flavours and perspectives and experiences of the world and you create something better than the sum of its parts with it”.

Some may feel that we in the UK are too late to change the debate on migration. The damage done by the political consensus to bash immigration and insist on closing borders in Brexit negotiations will mean we continue down a slippery slope. But we can’t afford to be despondent. Unless the left is vocal about immigration in a way that promotes a positive and inclusive message, it will not only be elections we lose, but the soul of our country. Instead of denial or blame, it is time our leaders showed courage and changed the record.

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