The UK and Europe

A national conversation on immigration

Sunder Katwala / Oct 2018

Photo: Shutterstock

There is much more common ground on immigration than most people think. That is the, perhaps surprising, conclusion of the biggest ever public engagement exercise on immigration, the National Conversation on Immigration. 

Immigration was at the heart of the EU referendum debate – because the public have lost confidence in how successive governments have handled immigration. The New Labour governments failed to anticipate the scale and pace of immigration following the eastward expansion of the EU after 2004, while then prime minister David Cameron and May (then home secretary) made promises they could not keep to slash net migration, reinforcing the sense that the government doesn’t know what it is doing on immigration. 

Those of us who believe immigration brings benefits to Britain’s economy and our society face the challenge of rebuilding confidence in the contribution that it can make. That will not be possible without involving the public in the debate. So the National Conversation was jointly conducted by my think-tank, British Future, and Hope Not Hate, the anti-prejudice civic society group. We travelled over 15,000 miles-everywhere from Southampton to the Shetlands, Bradford to Belfast, Wolverhampton to Wrexham -to bring together panels of citizens in 60 towns and cities, across every nation and region of the UK. We asked them to grapple with the future choices government ministers will now face.

We did found very low trust in governments on this issue – and indeed in the national media too. Yet, while people were frustrated by the failures of government, we heard constructive and pragmatic views about what should happen next.

The research also captured a huge gulf between these constructive, real-world conversations – made-up of people broadly representative of their local areas - and a much more polarised online debate, where the “balancer” majority rarely get involved All participants were asked to give a 1-10 score to sum up the pros and cons of immigration for Britain. In our local groups and a representative national poll, the most popular scores tend to 5 or 6: the national average is 5.77. When we held an open self-selecting online survey, which ten thousand people took part in, the most popular answers were 1/10 and 10/10. Most online participants selected the lowest or highest – while only 15% of our nationally-representative survey did that.

So in the real world, most people are “balancers”, seeing both the gains and pressures of migration. They do not think skilled or student immigration has been too high. They would like more control over low-skilled migration, but are pragmatic about well-managed migration when it is needed to fill jobs from care workers to farming.  We recommend that the government conducts an ongoing National Conversation of its own. An annual immigration day, rather like the budget, could be a focal point for public engagement in an ongoing conversation, where all voices, can get heard, rather than the pragmatic majority getting drowned out by those who shout loudest.

For most of our National Conversation discussions, it was difficult to tell who had voted on which side of the EU referendum, until people were talking directly about Brexit itself. If there is much scope for common ground on what people think about immigration – voters on both sides would prefer to be more open to skilled than low-skilled migration – there is a clearer split along referendum lines when it comes to deciding whether the trade deal or migration control matters most.

So the politics of this Autumn’s conference season will demonstrate how Brexit divides – and is becoming more polarising.  Conservative opinion increasingly regards Theresa May’s Chequers plan as staying too close to the EU. Both pro-EU opinion in the major parties and business wants the closest economic partnership possible – but the political barrier is that this may mean being unable to offer any meaningful change on immigration at all.  

Only a very small handful of the sixty National Conversation citizens panels were persuaded by an argument about keeping free movement because of the trade-off with the single market: those that were, for example in Knowsley and  Macclesfield cited specific impacts on the local economy, because of the role of car manufacturing or science in creating jobs in those areas. Arguments about national GDP go over everybody’s heads.

Pro-EU voices in politics and business are involved in an extensive debate about ways to at least tweak free movement, but are almost always talking to themselves,  about what might reassure those parts of the public more sceptical about free movement, but without those that they need to persuade yet being aware that these debates are taking place.  Those who focus on applying existing rules, but doing it better, overestimate public awareness of detailed micro-reforms and underestimate the sense, across voters on both sides of the referendum, that the Brexit vote was a reset moment on immigration. 

The National Conversation does show that it is possible to have a proper conversation, not a shouting match, about immigration – but politicians will need to engage the public to rebuild trust.  For the last two years, the government has ducked and delayed the debate, increasing a sense of frustration on all sides. But those who want to make the case for immigration in the world beyond Brexit will need to make sure that they are not just talking to themselves too.


Sunder Katwala

Sunder Katwala

October 2018

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