How practical is the call which came out of fringe meetings at the Labour conference in Manchester a week ago for a ‘coalition of the rational’ to take the debate about immigration through to the next general election?
The proposal came from the Labour immigration spokesperson, Chris Bryant, but it was pitched towards a wide spectrum of the public who have been characterised as ‘liberal centrists’ in recent opinion polls. This is a group of voters who are motivated by their commitment to a particular set of values which are often more important to the inidividuals concerned than calculations about their material interests. Voting on this basis is normally presumed to be the prerogative of people holding essential conservative viewpoints and who are mostly likely to warm to political parties which affirm ethnic identities and promise to protect their interests against outsiders.
But it seems that there are at least as many people who are turned off by the idea of policies which promise to stop immigration as those who want that outcome. The Extremis Project puts the figure amongst Labour supporters at 36% of those who would be less likely to support a policy with an anti-immigration standpoint as opposed to 32% of voers who would back it. When the question was whether or not you would support a party pledged to a reduction of Muslims in British society, 31% said no as against 29% who favoured this outcome.
Valuing immigration and diversity
These figures suggest that there is still a very fine balance between the two opposing viewpoints and many proponents of either position will not be discouraged in thinking they can yet come out on top. But this makes it more urgent for liberal/progressive currents in all of the mainstream parties to work to hold up their end of their argument in support of open and broadminded policies which recognise the value of migration and diversity. If they don’t take on this task with some determination then illiberal attitudes could well triumph and push the UK in the direction of the intolerance and xenophobia which pollutes the public discussion in many other European countries.
Mr Bryant’s vision of a ‘coalition of the rational’ might be something that could be worked up into a definite plan to put backbone into liberal centrist currents. Two things will be needed if the construction of this open-minded resilience is going to be taken on as a serious task.
The first of these will be the need for emphatic repudiation of the sort of the party tribalism which insists that acceptance of the leadership of Ed, or Nick or Dave is the precondition for the cause being taken forward. Openness to a world in which people move across frontiers is an issue which, like a commitment to racial and gender equality, opposition to homophobia, and a green perspective on the dangers of climate change, ought to be channelled through all the political parties.
Secondly, the coalition of the rational, whilst driven by values, will also have to take on the job of establishing the facts about migration and what it means for a country like Britain today. At the level of the national economy we know that the story is positive, with migration contributing to growth and supporting the viability of our most important public services.
Facts at local level
But the picture at local level is still largely a fact-free zone, which has left space for people to fill in the gaps with innuendo about migrants displacing natives from the jobs market and under-cutting wages whilst placing pressure on public services. The evidence relied on to support these assertions is very low grade and it is critically important that we do better to get to the truths in our local areas.
Fortunately we might be given the opportunity to do this in the weeks immediately ahead as more data is released from the 2011 National Census. The data will, for the first time, allow us to look at the statistical evidence of migration in the regions and sub-regions of England and Wales, telling us which migrants have settled where. This is information which can be correlated with other known facts about conditions in local labour markets and changes which have been taking place on demand for housing, health and education services.
With this information at our disposal it will be possible to get beyond the vague speculations which are the subject of so many newspaper headlines and politician’s speeches. We will be able to talk with more confidence about the local forces which are driving migration and also what the challenges are for everyone who wants to see better policy in this area.
There are still too many gaps in this idea of a coalition of the rational, on issues like the basic points which will hold it up, who will figure amongst its members, and how will the whole thing move forward with some approximate degree of coordination.
Perhaps what we need now is a few local examples of how it could function and the role it would play in clarifying public discussion. But it is an idea worth taking seriously, and more discussion amongst organisations committed to progressive viewpoints on migration is now urgently needed to help it look a bit more like a realistic prospect for the not-too-distant future.