Stephen Tall is co-editor of Lib Dem Voice.
I gave a speech last month which included a list of a dozen laws I’d introduce if I were that oxymoronic thing for a day, a liberal dictator. The second was: “I’d abolish any form of net migration target and welcome wholeheartedly those who choose to work here as fellow citizens.”
It appears, then, that I have something in common with 2.57 per cent of Conservative Party members, at least according to this site’s latest poll. That is the proportion of you who want to see the UK fling open our doors to the outside world, responding: “No bar to any immigration into Britain.” I salute each and every one of the 18 of you. I knew I’d find some kindred spirits here if I hung around long enough.
Except…(and here’s one of the problems with being a liberal: it’s in our DNA to see everything also from the other person’s point of view)…except, I’m not sure I wholly agree with myself.
A colleague of mine, someone whose liberal activism extends back at least two decades, e-mailed me gently to chide my list of Liberal Laws (“I had expected to agree with all of yours, but…”), including my drawbridge-down-to-all-comers, pro-immigration fiat. “All? Every single person in Afghanistan, wanting to work? Or Mexico? Or Africa?” he queried
My stopgap reply was, “In my Liberal Utopia, yes. I agree I’d probably have to condition this in the real world somewhat.” Mmm, I expect I would. And the real world is what our politicians have to grapple with, balancing the undoubted economic benefits immigration brings with the inevitable disruption to established communities that is sometimes unpopular with voters. As Sunder Katwala of the British Future think-tank noted on ConHome a few weeks ago:
‘There are going to be limits to migration. Britain is a popular country thanks to our growing economy, our global history and the cultural power of the English language. So we can’t take everyone who might want to come. Sensible limits would seek to identify the migration that benefits Britain and reflects our values with controls to restrict the level, pace and make-up of who we choose to let in.
Sensible targets would have three features: they would address migration which is within the control of government policy; target areas that the government does want to cap; and be set at levels which it believes can be achieved over a Parliament. Most people should be able to agree on that framework, while debating which levels to aim for, and which policies would be introduced to approach those targets.’
I’ll admit it: that’s a whole lot more plausible as an approach to immigration than my open-borders fantasy.
It is also one that would, I think, find favour with mainstream public opinion – as suggested by an ICM poll (commissioned by British Future) which showed 62 per cent of Conservative voters agreeing with the statement, “I would rather the government delivered on a realistic target to limit the immigration that it can control, rather than a higher target that it may not be able to meet”.
And, indeed, an approach that might also find favour with Conservative members. The same survey which identified 2.57 per cent of you as über-pro-immigrationers also found a plurality wanting international students to be removed from the immigration targets. There are excellent reasons for doing so: fees subsidise British students and earn £9 billion a year for the UK. Why would those of us who want a dynamic and successful market economy penalise a thriving export industry?
Not, I suspect, UKIP’s first elected MP, Douglas Carswell, who, as a Conservative, argued for an immigration system “that ensures we attract the brightest and the best”; and has continued to do so under his new party’s colours on the campaign trail in Clacton:
‘When voters tell him there are too many foreigners in the country, he tells them that they are wrong to blame immigrants for the problems they associate with immigration. It is perfectly rational for people to take up the opportunity to come to Britain, he says. The fault lies not with immigrants but with the immigration system that admits them: blame politicians, not immigrants. He also points out that immigrants make positive contributions to the UK economy and public services, especially the NHS. And on the whole, voters who complain to him about immigration seem to accept his arguments.’
It may seem odd to hear such sentiments from a UKIPer. We’re much more used to the casual xenophobia of Nigel Farage – that he’d be concerned if Romanians moved next door to him, or that he feels awkward on a train surrounded by foreigners – than we are to hearing the positive case for welcoming immigrants (albeit on a selective basis).
But Douglas Carswell’s view isn’t just about intellectually consistency. It’s also about a push for the centre ground of British politics, the place where elections are won – and lost. He wants the UK out of the European Union in part so that we can set our own immigration policy, as Switzerland and Australia do. To achieve that, the British public has first to be persuaded of the Better Off Out cause. That is a long way from happening.
I’ve noted in this column before the ‘Farage Paradox’. As UKIP’s support has soared in the last two years, so has approval for the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. The latest Ipsos MORI polling shows pro-EU sentiment at its highest in 23 years, pre-dating even the signing of the Maastricht Treaty:
‘Some 56% would vote to stay in the European Union, compared with 36% who would vote to get out; eight percent answer that they do not know how they would vote. This translates to 61% support for Britain’s EU membership and 39% opposing after excluding ‘don’t knows’. This is the highest support since December 1991.’
These are ominous figures for UKIP (and other Better Off Outers). It’s not enough to appeal to the zealous passions of a minority of the British people. To win a referendum they must secure an absolute majority – and that means dialling down the anti-immigration rhetoric which repels centre-ground voters (the majority) even as it energises their base (a minority). Douglas Carswell gets this; it’s far from clear his leader does.
Those on the Right, and Liberals like me, are at opposite ends of the gut instinct spectrum: I’m as fiercely drawbridge-down as most of you are drawbridge-up. What we have in common is that we’re both at the extremes of this debate, each hoping we can shift the centre-ground. Who wins may well depend on which of us successfully recognises we’re going to have to cede some ground to do so.