Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Tackling migration myths

Getting tone and message right is essential for discussing immigration, advises Atul Hatwal

That is the toughest subject for Labour on the doorstep? It is a fair bet you have just answered ‘immigration,’ the one topic where various Labour politicians have fallen over themselves to say ‘sorry.’ Yet if some have expressed regret for the scale of migration on Labour’s watch in government, it is not clear what they think should have been done differently. Maintaining transitional controls on the European Union’s new eight eastern European member states until 2007, rather than relaxing them in 2004, would have delayed any potential immigration by three years, but not prevented it entirely.

The political reality is that no British government, led by a major party, can definitively say it will reduce net immigration. This is because two of the three main determinants of net migration (the total number of people coming in minus those that are leaving) are outside the government’s control. Britons leaving the United Kingdom and EU citizens arriving cannot be regulated. Only the numbers of people coming to the UK from outside the EU are under government control. This means the government could stop all non-EU nationals from entering the UK, and even deport those that are here, and still net migration might rise because of increased inflows of EU citizens and reduced numbers of people leaving.

Responsibility without power guarantees political disaster. Next year net migration will likely be roughly at the same level it was when Labour left office, in the mid-200,000s, and David Cameron will have to explain to electors why it is well over double the tens of thousands that he promised.

Labour needs to be smarter. Not least because on the doorstep voters are now even more cynical about promises to cut immigration than in 2010.

So how does a progressive handle the inevitable difficult doorstep questions?

Two points are important.

First, the tone needs to be right. Even if the question is hostile, it is important not to dismiss people’s concerns. Given the skewed nature of the immigration debate, it is no wonder so many fear for the future.

At the Migration Matters Trust, we advise our spokespeople to use a common construction when responding to questions, whether in the media or just talking one to one. It adapts the ABC – acknowledge, bridge, control – structure that is frequently used in media training: Acknowledge – accepts there are legitimate concerns driving the question that need to be addressed and frames the response; Bridge – unpacks the claim in the question, distinguishing between the drivers of concerns and the actual evidence; Control – moves onto the positive, based around a narrowly focused, core set of messages.

Second, campaigners need to focus on core messages that make the connection between the benefits of migration and voters’ self-interest.

Some on the progressive side of the argument suggest we should avoid emphasis on the benefits of immigration and build an argument around the fairness of the immigration process. In this scenario the key messages are that migrants do not get undue advantages over Britons, work hard and integrate.

However, this approach misses a fundamental political point. Fairness is important but unless there is a clear narrative that explains why properly managed immigration is good for the country, it will not matter that the process is fair. Why should it, if the outcome of the process is bad for Britain? Politically, without a compelling rationale that demonstrates managed migration to be in the national interest, a future Labour government will struggle when the economy grows and immigration rises, just as the Conservatives are floundering at the moment.

There are significant economic benefits from properly managed migration; the key is that they be set out in a way that resonates with people’s personal situation.

Below are some sample responses from Migration Matters that bring together the approach on tone and messaging to three, frequently made, anti-immigration claims.

In the current climate immigration is often going to be a difficult doorstep conversation. The polling suggests that roughly a third of the electorate is supportive of immigration, a third is implacably opposed and a third is in the middle, albeit sceptical.

It is to this middle third that the case must be made. It will be a long process, stretching beyond the next general election, but it is a challenge that progressives must embrace if Labour is to neutralise immigration as a negative and draw the poison from the current toxic debate.


Immigrants are driving up unemployment, especially among the young

Acknowledge – Tackling unemployment, particularly among the young, is extremely important. The high levels of youth unemployment under this government are scandalous.

Bridge – The root problem, though, is not immigration but skills. Companies need staff with the right skills to do the job and under this government too many young people leave school ill-equipped for the world of work. At the moment there are almost 600,000 unfilled vacancies across the British economy according to the government’s Labour Force Survey, the highest level since before the crash.

Control – This is why Labour has committed to ensuring young people who are unemployed and without basic skills in mathematics and English will receive training in these areas as a condition of receiving job seeker’s allowance. In those cases where bad businesses try to use immigration to shirk their responsibilities Labour will take action to ensure the minimum wage is fully enforced and that they are not allowed just to advertise jobs abroad. This type of balanced approach, building young people’s skills, making sure companies stick by the rules and supporting the fair employment of migrants, is what is needed to tackle youth unemployment while not letting skills shortages hold back the recovery. Because, if the recovery stalls, then the pressure for deeper cuts to services and higher taxes for all of us will be much greater.


Immigrants come to Britain to abuse the benefits system

Acknowledge – Action needs to be taken to ensure a robust, secure benefits system and that the perception of ‘benefits tourism’ is tackled. The system needs to be fair and seen to be so.

Bridge – But the evidence suggests very strongly that only a small minority of immigrants claim benefits. Government research indicates that over nine in 10 migrants do not claim any out-of-work benefits within six months of coming to the UK.

Control – The reality is that migrants are, in fact, net contributors to the UK economy – they pay more into government than they take out. This helps fund services like the NHS and, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, this annual contribution is equivalent to almost half of government spending on schools. Without it, to manage the shortfall, any government would need to look at a combination of raising taxes, increasing borrowing and making deeper cuts to local services like primary and secondary schools.


Excess immigration is pressuring over-stretched public services

Acknowledge – It is true migrants will use public services, but they will also pay taxes to fund these services, and many of the services also depend on workers who are immigrants.

Bridge – The two key issues are whether immigrants make a net contribution – pay more in than they take out – and what would happen to these services without migrant workers.

Control – In terms of contribution, migrants are net contributors to the UK economy, helping fund services like the NHS. According to a big international study last year by the OECD, if we did not have this contribution, to make up the shortfall government would have to either raise everyone’s taxes by over 4p on the basic rate of income tax, or massively increase borrowing. And in terms of migrant workers’ role in these services, many of Britain’s most important public services would be crippled without migrants. For example, in the NHS, according to the General Medical Council, almost 40 per cent of our doctors are migrants and without immigration our health service would collapse. Properly managed migration that helps tackle skills shortages and boosts tax revenues is actually essential to sustaining and improving our public services.


Atul Hatwal is director of the Migration Matters Trust


Photo: UK Labour

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Atul Hatwal

is editor of Labour Uncut


  • We will never win the argument in regard to immigration and neither will the conservatives or indeed the Libl Dem until we address the ongoing problems with the gutter press–namely of course the Dail Mail and Express. Both the Daily Mail and The Daile Express are backing UKIP at the moment. UKIP also have the ability to select and attract leading members of the community.
    The only benefactors in this argument are UKIP–they are a new party and they have the skills and arguments that arei resonating with our tradional voters. We need to develop some radical, fare and effective arguments in order to address peoples concerns about immigration–if we fail we will see UKIP gaining control of councils and being elected to Westminster. The real challenge is not the Toris or Lib Dems but UKIP at the moment. If we fail to address the issues that they campaign on –it will be at our peril.

  • You will never win the argument in regard to immigration until you understand what the argument is of those who are saying it is a problem is.

    A lady in Rochdale tried to tell you but was, at cost, arrogantly shouted down because, as always you knew best.

  • Hate to admit this [even to myself] but I like that Yorkshireman, Pickles [tory SoS Communities’]. Eric’s forthright manner and outspoken, intelligent [very] commentary on many issues in our communities, from London’s Tower Hamlets to John o’ Groats, make me wish he were more of a socialist than a tory-toff. What happened to our LABOUR stalwarts who weren’t afraid of speaking their minds and giving intelligent [not too highbrow] solutions and advice to folk?
    Better shake up the act, guys, the Fat Lady has yet to sing in May next year, people like Pickles eat idiots for breakfast – bones and all[!] [apologies to Ella Fitzgerald fans and the Fat Lady].

  • I support this approach – and despair at the Labour leadership’s apology, and failure to make this type of argument. Most of the people complaining about immigration are from areas that have seen few. In question 2 I would emphasis that most immigrants are entitle to few or no benefits, unless and until they have worked her and contributed in the form of NI payments. Access to housing is an area were we need to be clear that their is no fast track for immigrants to public housing, and most live in private rented accommodation – often in very poor conditions. “Illegal immigrants” are entitled to nothing, and asylum seekers usually end up in hard to let tower blocks wherever the Government choses to put them.

    On question one, I do not think we should so lightly accept that a recovery is underway. Here in the NW unemployment continues to rise. Any recovery is due to the huge pay cuts that inevitably make us more competitive. The recovery will stall, and even if it doesn’t the Government will want more cuts because that is their agenda – the crisis is just the cover for something they never thought they would be able to get away with i.e. slashing the pay, pensions and conditions of worker, to massively boost profits (which they are already dodging taxes on).

    Nor should we be so critical of schools, who are judged on their exam performance – not the employability of their pupils. This Government has demolished the independent Careers and Youth Service (Connexions). Employers have a role in training young people – for the work they want them to do. £88 per week apprenticeships are often a rip-off replacement for low skill jobs in shops or homecare.

    Many jobs are not filled because people can’t live on the pay, or they demand unreasonable levels of flexibility (zero hours), or are crap door to door selling, etc.. The reality is that immigrant workers often fill awful jobs that are bloody hard work – like farm work in Lincolnshire, or meat-packing jobs in Wales. Employers, and particularly employment agencies, will often prefer the young flexible, hard-working immigrant worker – who wants to make money and then go home (or move on), than school leavers. We do have to ensure rigorous enforcement of the minimum wage – which must be increased substantially (lets stop subsidizing big business with low pay tax credits). The Working Time Directive (on breaks and days off, if not the 48 hour voluntary upper-limit) must be enforced. The anti-Trade Union laws prevent trade unions organising to resist low wages and unnecessary and excessive flexibility, which mean jobs are only attractive to those who see them as short-term. We need to stop agency staff being used to undermine agreed work conditions on construction and other work sites. Unshackling trade unions is a key element of this.

  • When I was living in London, in the East End where I was born, I worked as a builder. In the early nineties I was paying labourers £50 a day. I was at the Wicks builders merchants near Seven Sisters tube station recently with a friend which has every morning about fifty Eastern Europeans standing outside looking for work. I spoke to some of them, they are from Macedonia,Albania and other places not yet in the EU, and they will work for £25 a day plus a meal. Work it out! Immigration has driven down wages.

  • Yes, UKIP are taking control of the situation. It seems that you might benefit from their policies. One of which is to give a better education to young people. Your reply is a fairly intelligent one but your spelling abilities are atrocious. In the English language, far too many words sound the same but have different meanings and you have relied too much on a spell-checker rather than a good knowledge of the English Language.

Sign up to our daily roundup email