The question of how to talk about immigration is one of the most convoluted of our time, despite the pivotal role migrants play in our economy. As the Conservative Party loses another seat to Ukip and anti-immigration rhetoric continues to influence the debate, it is clear that something is wrong with our conversation.
On Thursday, I attended the launch of an excellent new report by British Future entitled “How to talk about immigration”, which aims to help redefine the conversation for a more profitable, reasoned discussion.
It is clear from British Future’s research that this is sorely needed: only around 30 per cent of the population trust what they hear when politicians speak about immigration, and around 60 per cent actively distrust politicians. However, these numbers were reversed when the public was asked whether they would trust a migrant of 15 years, who had become a British citizen, when speaking about immigration. In this circumstance, 58 per cent of the public would trust what they said.
What is clear from this research is that we need to wake up to the reality of the concerns that many British people have about immigration. We then have to allay these concerns if we are to ever move this debate onto a more equitable footing. It is often assumed that the public is outright hostile to immigration, but the research showed that only a little under a quarter of people felt that immigration was bad for the economy and that we should have as little as possible. Far more, 61 per cent, were of the view that immigration brings both pressures and economic benefits, so we should control it and choose the immigration that is in Britain’s best economic interests.
These people are not stupid, and they will not be persuaded of the benefits of immigration if we continue to fail to engage with them on their terms or take part in a rational discussion of their fears. The report has dubbed them the anxious middle – they recognise the economic benefits for employers of being able to hire the skilled workers they need, but are nervous about the practical impacts of large amounts of immigration.
This is where business must act; it is not enough to wait and hope that government will take the lead. Business has to help create the climate that will enable the political debate to be more rational. The report identified 10 key policy challenges for managing migration fairly within Britain. Business should participate in the discussion over these issues and encourage everyone to express their views. This is the only way in which we can ensure that Britain’s current immigration debate becomes more rational, which in turn should lead to an effective and fair immigration policy, and, crucially, one which is supported by public opinion.
Businesses exist to serve their customers and they do them a disservice if they do not speak out and get involved in this topic. Immigration is one of the key issues of our time – and we are at risk of losing the debate as it stands.