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Picture 1

The courtroom: a conference room in a tidy, central London hotel.

The jury: 85 carefully selected members of the public.

The defendant: a regular ol’ hot potato called… immigration.

Don’t get me wrong, immigration wasn’t actually on trial yesterday. This was just the name of a research event put on by Lord Ashcroft Polls: “Immigration on Trial”. The aim was to gather a range of public opinion about immigration under one roof, and press and prod its skinfolds. The readings that emerged would supplement a nationwide survey, with some 20,000 respondents, that has already been conducted and that will be published soon. In his introductory remarks, Lord Ashcroft referred to it all as “the most comprehensive and detailed account of people’s attitudes towards immigration in Britain”.

And so, nearly one hundred people congregated at 9.30am in the Park Plaza hotel near London’s Victoria Station. They had been selected according to pre-defined attitudes towards immigration. Each group was seated around a table, ten in all, and joined by a moderator. For the next six hours, with breaks for food and drink, they’d discuss the issue at hand. “It’s like focus groups meets speed dating,” explained one of the attendant pollsters.

Ah, there’s that phrase: “focus group”. Before we continue, I feel two things ought to be said about it. The first is that focus groups don’t deserve the sneers they sometimes attract. Removed from behind the oak-panelled doors of Westminster, as it was yesterday, it becomes clear: they’re a very useful means of gauging public opinion. Here were various people, of numerous incomes, backgrounds, ethnicities, persuasions and creeds, all giving their take on a seriously serious subject. A politician needn’t be led or swayed by the information that emerges from it – they might simply be informed.

Picture 2And the second is that there have rarely, if ever, been focus groups such as this. A normal focus group might involve one of the tables at yesterday’s event. Here, there were nine others as well. And pains were taken to make the whole process as “interactive” as possible, not just a list of what-do-you-think questions. Throughout the day, there were presentations and video clips for the audience to respond to. They were armed with little gizmos (pictured to the right) through which they could express their views. Even from the sidelines, where I was skulking with my laptop, it was all very engaging.

The first session of the day saw those gizmos put to instant use. To establish a framework for the ensuing discussion, people bashed out their immediate thoughts on immigration. And the nature of those thoughts? Peering over the pollsters’ shoulders, one thing struck me: this wasn’t so much an outpouring of public opinion, as a general appeal for facts. Most of the audience members were asking questions rather than making statements:

“How many immigrants in prison?”

“How many immigrants are on benefits?”

“How would you describe Britishness?”

And the answers? They started to come in a pair of presentations that had been arranged for the morning. The first was by Sunder Katwala of British Future, and was broadly pro-immigration. He set about listing various benefits that immigration has brought to Britain – from entrepreneurialism to student fees – but was careful to address some of the downsides, and how they might be curbed. “I see very few benefits to Britain if we have immigration without integration,” is how he put it in his conclusion – to nodding from the more sceptical tables.

The second was from Sir Andrew Green of MigrationWatch, who was there to question the scale of the immigration that this country has experienced over the past few decades. “When we have arrivals on this scale, it becomes very difficult to achieve integration in our society,” he said. Ear-catchingly, he also suggested that, as Lord Ashcroft tweeted, “he’s coming to the view that EU membership may not be compatible with controlling immigration”. This is not something that MigrationWatch has loudly broadcast before now.

Of course, the response to these presentations was varied. Weaving through the tables after each, I heard remarks such as “good sense”, “fantasy”, “spin”. That was the nature of this crowd.

Picture 3After lunch, a session from which more certain conclusions could be drawn – at least from my perspective. And this was when the technology really impressed. Three short video clips were played, of each of the three main party leaders – Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, in that order – talking about immigration. The audience members were then to bash furiously at the numbers on their gizmos, registering either their approval or disapproval of what they heard. Press 1, and it would mean “strongly disagree”. Press 5, and it would mean “strongly agree”. A live “worm poll” was simultaneously constructed out of everyone’s responses, as pictured to the right.

The result would have been rather disconcerting for the Coalition parties. Miliband – yes, Miliband – seemed to come out on top. He was followed by Cameron and then Clegg. What won it for Miliband was his insistence, at least in this clip, that immigrants should be able to speak English. What lost it for Clegg was disbelief, even laughter, at the government achievements he claimed. When he said that the Coalition had cut net migration by a third, you could almost hear a collective “yeah, right” ripple through the audience – even though the Lib Dem leader was speaking the truth. And this response wasn’t just reserved for Tuition Fees Nick. Cameron got some of it, too.

And it didn’t get much better for the Coalition partners in the final session of the day. Here, the tables were presented with some modest proposals for immigration policy. Depending on which
group you listened to, some did like and some didn’t like ideas such as, “Impose an annual limit on the migration from outside the EU” – but there was widespread uncertainty about whether these were already Government policy or not. It brought proceedings back to those questions asked in the first session: however much the politicians blather on, voters still aren’t sure of the facts.

“We’ve certainly gleaned a lot from all of you today,” said Lord Ashcroft in his closing remarks. We shall have to wait for the final report, due later this month, to see just how much that “lot” is – but, from what I saw yesterday, it’s likely to contain much for the party leadership to ponder. Trust is a sparse commodity in British politics. You can probably underline and italicise that fact when it comes to immigration.

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