Immigration is a problem for all political parties. Most voters believe immigration has been bad for Britain – a finding that Jon Cruddas MP is reported to have said should “ricochet through the body politic.” Voters have been unenthusiastic about the policies of all parties. Immigration is an issue that offers a genuine opportunity leading to much soul-searching about how this electoral weakness might be transformed into a powerful strength.
There have been several attempts at winning over the electorate, such as Labour’s recent call to ensure that ‘immigration must work for all’. But what to make of such attempts? Some have responded that the biggest problem Labour has with immigration is that it continues to talk about it. The argument is that immigration is not a vote winner and unlikely to become one. Our focus should turn to issues such as crime, the economy or health. This is not about ceding issues as it is about redirecting energies towards current strengths. Other commentators have noted that immigration lacks the pressing importance that other issues have. The argument is that voters consistently rank higher other issues such as the economy and crime. Yes, voters are concerned about immigration, but their votes are more strongly linked to other policies – and this is where our attention should turn. So there is a choice: to either continue the attempt to win voter trust on immigration or change focus to other issues. Which choice should we make?
I believe this choice is a false dilemma. Our choice is not whether to win voters over on immigration policy or prioritise other issues instead. We might best win on immigration by winning the argument on issues such as the economy.
Several issues have been put forward as ‘the’ defining issue for the 2015 general election, but none better captures the true core of voter concerns than the issue of insecurity. The public is insecure about the economy. This insecurity is infectious and has spread to related issues, such as education and housing. We must recognise public insecurity about the future and the lack of opportunities available. Opposition to immigration is a product of this general public insecurity. Advocates of greater border control express not racism or xenophobia, but instead a general insecurity about existing pressures on present circumstances and a lack of belief in future opportunities. The best way to tackle immigration concerns is to give the public hope and dispel their fears for the future of this country. Mere border restrictions alone will not meet the demand.
Public opposition to immigration is a product of general economic insecurity. Voters can hardly be blamed for opposing greater obstacles to employment, housing and general economic security where opportunities are few and hope for the future in short supply. Voter trust on immigration policy must be won, in part, by demonstrating a clear plan for economic growth to make clear that controlled immigration under Labour is not about increasing future economic security, but overcoming this insecurity. If citizens are less insecure about their future, then they will be more favourable to controlled immigration and the many benefits this brings.
The problem with thinking about immigration policy is to view it in isolation from the issues that give rise to the anxieties citizens have. If we can offer credible alternatives on how to reduce public insecurity, then we will win on immigration – and win the general election. The choice is ours.