As there’s so much going wrong with British politics and public debate, let me rescue one small positive from the mess.
The past two years have shown that, in at least one area, when issues are discussed with honesty and objectivity and the right people take responsibility for making the right arguments with passion and commitment, public attitudes can be shifted.
The issue that should give everyone hope is immigration. No, really.
In the final weeks of the EU referendum campaign, immigration was behind its ugliest moments: Nigel Farage’s poster claiming refugees were Europe’s “breaking point”; and the shout of “Britain First” from the man who murdered Jo Cox.
Those moments weren’t an expression of a healthy exchange of views. They were product of decades of one-sided, uninformed and cowardly public debate fuelled not just by Conservative immigration targets and hostile environment policies, but equally the obsession of Labour governments with “bogus asylum seekers” and making life progressively more miserable for the most vulnerable people arriving in the UK for purely political aims.
We now know the biggest failure was that people who knew better didn’t challenge the prevailing narrative. We know that now because in spite of everything, over the past few years things have changed.
In 2011 at the height of the economic crisis, 64 per cent of people told pollster IpsosMori they felt negatively about immigration, compared to just 19 per cent who felt positively. That trend has steadily reversed so that by the end of last year, the same polling showed 48 per cent had positive feelings about immigration, compared to 26 per cent with negative ones.
Brexit supporters have seized on the numbers, claiming they show that when politicians respond to anti-immigration sentiment, promising to cut numbers and impose harsher restrictions, people are reassured. The opposite is true. When pollsters asked people what had changed their views, the biggest single factor, cited by 51 per cent of respondents, was that “discussions over the past few years have highlighted how much immigrants contribute to the UK”. Fifteen per cent said “there are fewer negative stories about immigration than there were a few years ago”.
It isn’t hard to see why. Since the referendum, both main parties have been forced to acknowledge the scale of the contribution made by immigrants to the economy and society. EU nationals in particular have ceased to be depicted as scroungers and job-stealers; instead the public have been told human stories of their neighbours, friends and colleagues.
Zombie ‘facts’ still distort the debate, although the figures they are quoted by are becoming less and less credible. Many more people now know immigrants contribute to, rather than drain public services. Some cling to the belief that immigrants drive down wages, even though academic research shows only a limited effect at the bottom of the job market. Immigrants are far more likely to be the ones doing those low-paid jobs, for reasons of social status. The newest arrivals mostly compete for jobs with those they follow.
It’s no good looking back – immigration drove the Brexit vote, and we’ll be living with the consequences for years. But there could be a second EU referendum where other poorly understood issues will be revisited. There’s little good to be salvaged from the past couple of years, but a commitment to talking about things the way we’ve talked about immigration would be one.