Who’s being ignored when politicians claim they are “listening to concerns about immigration”?

A common narrative underpinning many current debates on immigration is that voters’ concerns about immigration were once ignored, but are now being “listened to” by politicians.

Across the political spectrum, politicians are now claiming they’re listening to those previously ignored voters, in particular around the Rochester and Strood by-election, which saw UKIP gain its second MP. Nigel Farage claimed that the key to the by-election success was that ‘we listened to people.

UKIP Campaign In Rochester Before Upcoming By-election

In a speech on 18 November outlining plans to curb in-work benefits to EU migrants who have been in the country for less than two years, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves said that “I also believe that we have to listen to the real concerns that people have about how immigration is being managed”.

Rachel Reeves

On 28 November, David Cameron’s speech (which proposed denying in-work benefits to EU migrants in the country for less than four years – twice as long as the Labour proposal), stated that “And to the British people I say this: I share your concern and I am acting on it”.

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The narrative of the previously ignored voter who must now be listened to is the flipside of equally common assertion that “we don’t talk about immigration” because it supposedly disrupts some sort of liberal, politically correct consensus (presumably made up of those who “don’t listen”)– and that by doing so politicians and commentators can present themselves as courageous contrarian populists (Gavin Titley takes this apart in How to Write a Racist Anti-Racist Article). Cameron alluded to this in the Europe speech as well: “It’s time we talked about this properly.

It is not difficult to imagine how this “silent majority” of previously ignored voters is being imagined and constructed: UKIP supporters, or potential UKIP supporters (frequently described as “left behind”, a characterisation which also frames them as being ignored)—who, in the current divisive political climate, have come to stand in for the general public. This fits in with a commonsense narrative where, as John Grayson puts it, racist or xenophobic views are simply held by the electorate, and then politicians claim to give them voice, in this case, by assertions that they are listening. However, these repeated assertions of “listening “ both ignore and obscure the concerns of another group of people:  the migrants themselves, whose rights and access to public services are directly affected by these policy initiatives (the very policies which are formulated to show that politicians are “listening”). According to the campaign organisation Migrant Voice, only 12% of news articles on immigration actually quote a migrant.

The focus groups we carried out with migrants and ethnic minority British citizens reveal how high-profile immigration campaigns make them feel unwelcome.  One focus group participant in Birmingham said that that the “Go Home” van made him feel that he would never belong to British society.

That makes me feel paranoid of the general British public, to be honest with you, when I saw it on the news… It makes me feel like no matter what happens, what my outcome is, I will never fit in and become a British citizen, yeah, because of this “Go home” van because it’s reminiscent of back in the days when they used to be blatantly racist towards people. 

Another focus group participant in Barking and Dagenham described how the vans were interpreted as telling people to “go home”, regardless of their circumstances or immigration status:

It was more personal and it’s like, you know, people took it personally, you don’t know my circumstances, but yet you tell me to go home and it was quite bad, that’s how people felt it.

In Ealing and Hounslow, a second-generation Asian focus group participant made comparisons to the 1970s, and remarked that the state is doing the same work today that the skinheads did then.

Commenting on the immigration debate in the media, a focus group participant in Coventry said that:  I never read an article or even a small subject or article in the newspaper saying a single positive thing about immigration. The stereotypes of the “bogus asylum seeker” or the migrant as “scrounger” who was taking advantage of the British taxpayer were both frequently brought up by focus group participants in terms of how migrants were being represented in the media.

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Our research shows that by attempting to reassure one particular section of society, by showing that they are “listening”, politicians are ignoring the concerns of others, alienating them, and in some cases removing their rights and access to public services. As the 2015 election approaches and the immigration debate intensifies, this leads to questions about whether migrants are actually even considered to be part of the public, particularly if the general public is increasingly being framed as the “silent majority” who hold anti-immigration views, and who must be continually reassured that politicians are listening (and what will finally make them satisfied that they are being “listened to”?).  Campaigns such as Migrants’ Rights Network’s Our Vote, as well as the Operation Black Vote challenge these sorts of narratives, through arguing that there are others whose concerns matter too.

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Immigration: Good for whom? BBC4 debate in Birmingham, 17 December 2013

I attended the BBC Radio 4 Debate on immigration, which took place at the Birmingham City University Conservatoire on 17 December 2013. The debate included Paul Collier (economist), David Goodhart (director of the DEMOS think tank and the former editor of Prospect); Nazek Ramadan (founder of the Migrant Voice newspaper) and Suzie Symes (director of the Immigration Museum on Princelet Street in London.

Before starting the debate, the host (Ritula Shah) did a straw poll of the audience (who seemed quite mixed in terms of race, gender and age), asking them if they thought immigration should be reduced; a quarter of the room raised their hands. Then she asked how many people thought that the level of immigration was fine as it was. Slightly more people raised their hands, but most did not. She then asked how many people didn’t care, and a few people raised their hands.  So this was an audience where some people felt immigration should be reduced,  but the majority of the audience did not hold a strong opinion.

Shah introduced the debate in relation to the lifting of the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians, but also in terms of recent change of attitude on the liberal left, in which a previous pro-immigration orthodoxy was now being challenged – with Collier and Goodhart in particular as representatives of this changing perspective. Using the rhetoric of “brain drain”, Collier argued that skilled professionals in developing countries have a duty to stay at home and build their national economies, rather than emigrating for a better life. He called for restrictions on immigration from poorer countries, a restriction that should not exist for wealthier countries (which Nazek Ramadan argued created an unfair double standard in terms of mobility). Collier also pointed out that when societies become too diverse, it becomes difficult for people to integrate or cooperate socially – and so too much diversity would lead to a loss of common life. Goodhart made very similar arguments to Collier, saying that it is not possible to have a functioning welfare state in a diverse society (and evoking  Milton Friedman’s quote about how the US can have open borders or a welfare state but not both).  Robert Putnam’s  E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century (2007) was cited as proving that immigration was bad for social cohesion; Putnam’s thinking generally seemed to be influential on both Goodhart and Collier, particularly the decline narrative around public disengagement, weakening social bonds and atrophying civic institutions outlined in Bowling Alone (2000).

Nazek Ramadan and Suzie Symes argued that, despite the pessimistic tone of much media coverage on immigration, most people in fact get on with each other, and communities are much more integrated than politicians and the media often admit (it is a truism that stories of successful integration sell fewer newspapers than moral panics). Suzie Symes also made the point that migrants benefit the economy and contribute more to the public purse than they receive – a point that was disputed by Goodhart.  She also argued that immigration is intrinsic to contemporary society, and said that we should be able to welcome accept this rather than perceiving it as a threat.

The audience response to the panel was mixed, although, arguably, more positive than negative. For example, there was an anecdote about a parent being told by a headteacher that there were no more places at the school because they were being reserved for Romanians and Bulgarians, who had extra language needs (which provoked a response from another audience member, who said there is no official policy about saving school places for migrants). Another audience member introduced himself as a member of the Polish community (which has existed in the West Midlands since the Second World War), and how, from his perspective the most recent wave of Polish immigration seems to  have struck the right balance of maintaining British and Polish cultural identities, which had proven more difficult for previous generations of Polish immigrants.

In response, Goodhart claimed several times throughout the evening that the audience was unrepresentative of British society. This raises questions about what Goodhart might see a representative audience to be: more homogeneously white, or anti-immigrant, for example? Does a representative British public exist, and how much is this in fact a media construct (the anxious, resentful “silent majority” who feels aggrieved at immigration, cynical about politics, and in danger of voting for UKIP instead of one of the mainstream political parties)?  Furthermore, what does this mean in a multicultural city such as Birmingham?  As the 2015 election approaches, questions about who the public is, and who is seen to belong to it, will only become more important.