The Left Needs a Clear Immigration Narrative

12 Oct 2016

In recent times the issue of immigration has caused two significant changes to modern politics. It began with the rise of UKIP, which, in turn, led to calling an EU referendum, and a win for the leave vote. Both of these major events, arguably, could not have happened without the issue of immigration. The right have had a monopoly on the issue, whilst the left have generally struggled to form a counter argument.


The likes of UKIP and the right of the Conservatives have made a fairly simple argument,  namely that there is too much immigration and the country can’t handle it. This resonates with the public because it provides a simple answer to an agglomeration of problems.  If the person on the street sees large queues somewhere, or longer waiting times at a hospital, it is easy to blame immigration. This argument has been supported by increasing net migration numbers. Put together, the right make a compelling narrative for voters to get behind.


Of course all of the above is a largely emotive, and it has been boosted yet further by austerity. When hospitals, schools and local council budgets are reduced it is almost inevitable that waiting times will increase and services will decrease. What UKIP and the right have succeeded in is to link these issues to immigration. The fact that British politics has swung towards the right and chosen Brexit is an indication of the success of the right’s immigration narrative.


Conversely, the left has struggled to find an equally engaging argument for their more pro-immigration stance. This will not be an easy task because the argument in favour of immigration is more complex. Immigration is generally good for the economy, immigrants contribute more in tax than they take in benefits, and of course they fill vacant jobs, or create further jobs.


The challenge is to turn that data in to a compelling argument that resonates with the public and pushes back against the current narrative.


Labour seems to be dichotomised when it comes to immigration. Corbyn is willing to advocate the complete opposite argument, embrace free movement, and praise the positive effects of immigration. Others in the party, such as Chukka Umunna, look to a more centrist, compromising approach, which stresses the positives of immigration whilst slightly limiting numbers.


It remains to be seen which approach will turn out to be better with voters. The compromise seems to listen to concerns of those worried about immigration more, whilst the emphatically pro-immigration strategy has definite moral and upbeat messages, which will still appeal to some.


If recent electoral evidence such as the 2015 general election, Brexit, and polling, is anything to go by, it suggests that increasingly the population, even some Remain voters, would like to see more control of immigration. The left may therefore have to swallow its pride and take a stricter line in order to get a majority in parliament, and then really begin shifting the argument.


Indeed, the recent Conservative Conference suggests the argument may be shifting even further right, despite the rhetoric in Theresa May’s speech, so time is of the essence for Labour and their left-leaning colleagues.


The nudge theory is something the left could look toward as a beacon of hope. The theory goes that it is easier to get the population to sway towards a certain argument in small ‘nudges’ rather than one big jump – a strategy that naturally works well with parliamentarianism. For example, labelling products with their calorie value is a nudge towards a healthier society. The political left may have to employ this to begin swinging the argument back towards a positive message. Starting by listening to concerns, then gradually send the argument away from its current anti-immigration trend. 


Getting the counter argument right will be vital for the future electoral hopes of the left. With Brexit on the horizon and the decision about accepting free movement or losing single market membership facing parliament, immigration is an issue that is not going to disappear any time soon. It was said that the vote to leave the European Union may make UKIP a fading force in UK politics, while this may yet be true, finding an effective argument in praise of immigration is a much more definite way to side-line UKIP for good. 


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