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Time to take back control of the conversation

Maeve Glavey - 08 July 2016

How can the moderate mainstream regain its voice on immigration after the EU referendum?

After years of frustration, the referendum campaign unleashed pent-up anger on immigration, resulting in an explosive debate that helped lay the groundwork to drive Britain out of the EU. As the country charts an uncertain course forward, mainstream parties must offer concrete policy solutions and address divisive narratives on immigration. A new project by Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Fund is exploring how this can be done.

Over the past two weeks, the dust has been failing to settle in the wake of the UK’s most divisive political exercise in decades. Amid the chaos unleashed by the leave vote, there has been scrambling on all sides to come up with new positions on immigration in this context of turmoil. The initial reaction of many leading Brexiteers was to either shamelessly backtrack on claims made during the campaign or to resolutely refuse to acknowledge reality. We saw some key leave figures distancing themselves from earlier promises to end free movement, while others insisted that access to the single market coupled with caps on EU immigration would be possible or even easy to obtain. Remainers who had tried to downplay the relevance of immigration as an issue during the campaign were forced to concede its importance to the outcome.

As the political class deals with the Brexit fallout, ordinary communities around the country have been picking up the pieces. Reports of hate crimes surged fivefold in the week after the vote, and three million EU citizens, many with jobs, families, and long-established lives in Britain, have been left fretting about their future. Once the leadership battles and internal wrangling of parties in Westminster are settled, these people, along with millions who voted leave, will be waiting to hear in much greater detail what the new positions of the mainstream parties are and what a post-Brexit immigration policy is going to look like. To answer these questions effectively, parties must reflect on how immigration came to feature so strongly in the debate, what is really at stake, and what the building blocks of an effective response should now be.

How we got here

Immigration did not suddenly appear on the agenda during the referendum campaign. While it may have taken centre stage in TV debates and dominated the front pages during the ten week campaigning period, public concern on this topic has been rising over time (Figure 1); it also played a key role in the general elections of 2010 and 2015. The UK public appears to be reacting not to a fantasy, but to real changes in the number of people entering the country, which started to climb from the mid-1990s (Figure 2). Between 1993 and 2014, the foreign-born population more than doubled, reaching 13.1 per cent of the total. The ONS’s predictions at the end of 2015 projected population growth of 9.7 million over the next 25 years, of which (pre-Brexit) net migration was expected to account for just over half.

Figure 1

The mainstream political responses to these trends over the years varied under different governments, but had one thing in common: they failed to adequately address the public’s concern, and in particular their fears, over immigration. Currently, the UK’s main inflow comes from economic migration. This category experienced a notable rise after the Labour administration chose not to impose transitional controls on immigration from the EU8 states that joined the union in 2004. As one of only three existing EU members to do this (Sweden and Ireland being the others), the decision led to a surge in immigration from central and eastern European states and helped put the country on course to reach record levels of net migration in 2015. Net migration to the end of that year stood at 333,000, of which EU migration accounts for just under half. The release of this data weeks before the Brexit vote fed into the hostility towards EU migrants that had become a key plank of the leave campaign.

Figure 2

As immigration rose in the 2000s, Labour’s initial approach was to accept and embrace it, rather than try to discourage it. Viewing economic migration as beneficial to the economy (which many studies have argued it is), Tony Blair’s government allowed for its largely unrestricted continuation, while developing a series of measures to tackle illegal immigration and promote integration. These included the setup of border controls at Calais, as well as developing English language classes, citizenship ceremonies and civic education courses for immigrants in the UK.

This approach increasingly irked many members of the public, particularly those in the towns and regions of the country experiencing large relative inflows, who worried not about national gains, but localised cultural and economic impact. When the Conservatives offered up the now infamous promise to cut net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ in the 2010 general election campaign, many were all too ready to hear it. When that reduction failed to materialise, it fuelled further distrust in mainstream politicians and helped create the image of a government powerless to control country’s borders, which was used to such effect during the referendum campaign.

An existential threat

The number one beneficiary of the combined struggles and failures of mainstream parties on immigration in the UK has been the UK Independence party. Having failed to capture public support advocating for the UK’s ‘independence’ from the EU on economic grounds, it significantly broadened its appeal by latching onto this issue and driving home the message that it was the only party to take the immigration 'crisis' seriously. Ukip has worked hard to cultivate its image as not racist, but simply advocating for ‘common sense’ policies when it comes to who should enter the country and in what numbers. Like the leave campaign in general, it has succeeded in drawing in a broad coalition of voters from an electorate that no longer divides neatly along left-right traditional lines, by focusing on the issues that matter to them most.   

This detoxification effort and shift in focus has helped move Ukip from a fringe party to one that can command millions of votes. Now that its stated raison d’etre has been accomplished, and Nigel Farage has stepped down, the party’s future is unclear. It may ultimately diminish in importance, or it may rise even further in popularity if an EEA-style Brexit agreement is negotiated for the UK that fails to curb free movement and allows the party to shout ‘betrayal’. What is evident are the risks that the style of politics promoted by it and its populist counterparts around Europe pose to mainstream parties, especially if they continue to flounder on immigration.

First, and most obviously, they risk a continued outright loss of votes and support. A majority of voters in the UK were happy to ignore the constant economic warnings aired in the run-up to the referendum in favour of simplistic catchall messages that promised them every aspect of a better life outside the EU, including action on immigration. Even for those who believed the warnings, the chance to make unhappiness at their current circumstances heard was either worth the sacrifice, or in their view contained no sacrifice whatsoever since they had no further left to fall. If this sense of anger and despair is not addressed, the mainstream will continue to haemorrhage support.

Second, mainstream parties risk being pushed rightwards in their own policies and their rhetoric in the hope of remaining popular and relevant. The promotion of the Australian-style points system for all immigrants, pushed by Conservative Vote Leave campaigners and Ukip alike, is one example of the mainstream and populists advocating for similar policy on immigration. The system was presented as a fairer alternative to the existing one – where it was argued EU migrants were being prioritised over non-EU migrants – but a clear explanation of how this would work in practice was not provided. David Cameron’s 2015 reference to a 'swarm' of migrants at Calais was an earlier indication of a dangerous move in this populist direction. These changes in tone are also associated with the left. Labour’s stance on immigration began to toughen in 2010 when it first properly shifted focus to reducing immigration and increasing controls; since then its policy has been couched in increasingly negative terms.

These challenges mean that getting it right on immigration is not just a question of gaining or maintaining power for mainstream parties; it is a question of their very survival. Although the UK’s electoral system has kept Ukip at bay nationally, its ability to influence the debate and pressure the mainstream helped bring the Brexit vote about. After a vitriolic referendum campaign, major parties are left divided at the very time when strength and leadership is most needed.

Charting a new path

The question remains what can be done about all of this. A new Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Fund research project is exploring the questions mainstream parties in the UK must ask and answer if they are to develop new, effective and comprehensive strategies on immigration. The project considers this challenge in the context of a European continent in which several countries have seen a rise in hostility towards immigration and a surge in support for populist parties, including several that are now demanding their own referendums on EU membership. It will ask what can be learned from the efforts of other European countries to deal with immigration challenges, and consider what aspects of successful strategies might be adapted to the UK context.

The overall goal for mainstream parties must be to take back control of the conversation on immigration. As the EU referendum has shown, allowing both populist parties and populist voices within mainstream parties to dominate the debate can have far-reaching and negative consequences. The focus on immigrants as a threat during the campaign was powerful – they were portrayed as overburdening the UK’s systems, particularly the NHS, and the spectre of Turkey was used to frighten voters. This presentation was not effectively challenged and remain campaigners failed to make a positive case for immigration. Regaining voice on this issue requires not a simplistic focus on numbers, but a reconsideration of how the whole debate on immigration is conducted. Moderate voices must untangle the myriad of issues that feed into the public’s sense of discontent, and address their fears including those of erosion of national identity and growing worry about various insecurities in a globalised world. 

The good news for those wishing for a more nuanced conversation on immigration is that there may still be large numbers of people who are willing to take part in that conversation and listen to new ideas put on the table. British Future has previously carried out work that identified half the British public as falling into a ‘moderate majority’ or ‘anxious middle’ who were not polarised on either end of the immigration debate, but whose positions actually depend on the policies and reassurances offered. The divisions stirred by the campaign have heightened the urgency of reaching and engaging those people. Referendums are by nature divisive, as they force a choice between two simple options – in this case ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ – but the public, who recognise the complexity of immigration challenges, must be reassured that there are still more options available to them than simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to immigration. While acknowledging the key role immigration concerns played in the campaign, the final vote does not by any account equate to a 52 per cent vote against immigration and a 48 per cent vote for it.

The complex concerns of this ‘anxious middle’ must be addressed through workable policy proposals which are realistic and implementable. This means abandoning grand promises and unachievable targets in favour of open discussions about the trade-offs that are required to live in a modern, open democracy, as many Britons still want the UK to be. While in the Brexit negotiations free movement will be top of the agenda, the wider context of other immigration challenges should not be forgotten. More than 50 per cent of current UK immigration comes from outside the EU, and the referendum outcome has also stoked tensions on issues such as the Jungle at Calais, with a number of French voices calling for a renegotiation of the Le Touqet agreement. All of these issues, and the consideration of each constituent category of immigration – be it economic, asylum, family reunion, or students – will require attention and debate. 

The new prime minister and her government will need to be far more open and honest on immigration than any before them as they seek to restore public confidence and remedy the erosion of trust in politics which led so many voters to feel their voices went unheard for so long. As well as looking to other European countries for examples of best practice, they could consider revamping UK ideas from the past (such as the Migrant Impact Fund), and look to engage diverse stakeholder groups, including civil society, to come up with new and innovative proposals. Particularly sensitive in the aftermath of a Brexit vote and the divides it has revealed in UK society will be the question of integration and social cohesion. The work being done on these issues will take on greater importance than ever, including the recommendations of the Casey Review, which is expected for release in the coming months.

Regaining control of this debate also requires a commitment from the moderate mainstream not just to act on immigration, but to make sure they are seen to be acting. Effective communication is more important than ever for an anxious public and cannot just be one way. People around the UK, however they voted on the EU, must be able to see, feel and understand the ways in which their concerns are being addressed as new policy on immigration develops in the new political world that emerges after the Brexit vote. They must be consulted, listened to, and made to feel they have a stake in this. If parties can harness and engage the interest of these people and offer constructive solutions to their concerns, then the tumult we are now seeing could yet give way to a more positive outcome on immigration that avoids the pitfalls of the past.

Maeve Glavey is a researcher at Policy Network

This work is supported by the Barrow Cadbury Fund. Its migration programme aims to promote an immigration system that is fair to both migrants and established residents and a policy and public debate on migration and integration that is based on shared values as well as evidence.



wayne green
11 July 2016 15:54

A paper that offers to open up areas to be considered upon the word immigration and political debate The Racialization of British Political debate Since 1940s The nation has been and still being, eroded and hollowed out from within by implantation Of unassimilated and unassimilable populations….. alien wedges in the heartland (Enoch Powell: 1976) Introduction This paper will attempt to expose and identify the ideologies and paradigms that have motivated the racialization of British political debate since the 1940s. Firstly there is a need to unpack and analyse the word racialization and in this context, brings to the debate an examination of notion of race. Secondly, this leads to an investigation of how race has become politicised and drafted into the national political arena, by researching the role of the national, domestic, political spectrum. Ultimately to discuss upon the racialization of politics from the 1940s, there will be a need for this paper to take issue with the role of the immigrant and the policies of immigration, notions of race, colour and the institutionalised racialization of political debate. In this process exposed will be the fundamental forces that continue the highly political debate by all political parties at the national and local level on the issues of refugees, immigration, asylum seekers and the playing of the race card in electoral debate. This in turn gives way to explicit allegations by all political parties accusing each other of the racialization of the political debate for political advantage over the electorate. It is in this context there is need for an examination of racialization. NOTIONS OF RACIALIZATION Firstly examining the sphere of political racialization suggests the coercion of political debate or a reorientation of political debate towards the paradigms of race, culture and identity and the discrimination of a particular race, through specific beliefs and political policies. Again based on issues of race, culture and identity. Examining further the notions of race, culture and identity, it is worth examining Paul Gilroy who gives his account of new racism and how he links the role of race to nation and also a distinct form in itself within Britain. ‘The politics of race in this country is fired by conceptions of national belonging and homogeneity which not only blur the distinction of race and nation but rely on that very ambiguity for their effect’. (P Gilroy: 1997:248) here Gilroy states that race is no longer distinct or separate, but blurred with the nation. Within the notion of these two areas both have been overlapped, but at the same time a distinction has been made by defining, [one nation] which defines one [race] based on cultural and social aspects of the nation. Again P Gilroy focuses on the newness of racism and how it has been developed from a distinct form of its own, into a fluid continuation with other discourses such as ‘Gender, Englishness, Britishness Patriotism and Nationalism’ (P Gilroy: 1997:248) sophisticated system. P Gilroy states that race is seen in ‘cultural/biological’ (P Gilroy: 1997:250) terms and conveyed into the sphere of the family. This is viewed as the key element to the nation. Also the role of language comes into the specifics of race with Gilroy, as he points out the ‘militarism of the language of war’ (P Gilroy: 1997:250) such as the ‘immigrant, black immigrant’. (P Gilroy: 1997:251). The immigrant is seen as an invader of nations borders and again, the words black and immigrant gives way to the notion of race and biological difference as an attack on the Britishness of the nation. In comparison with the works of Saul Dubow and the word [ethnic] which started to appear as an alternative to the word race as social scientists started to challenge Darwinism during the… ‘1930 and 1940s’(Saul Dubow: 1994:335). It is here [that]…‘South Africa the term [ethnic] first appeared as an alternative to biological notions of race’ (Saul Dubow: 1994:356). Again the influence of the scientific field started to come alive when [in]… ‘1935 anthropologist, A.C. Haddon, biologist, Julian Huxley co Authored a book We Europeans: A study of Racial problems, which proposed to avoid the word race and use the term ethnic group or people’. (Saul Dubow: 1994: 357). It was during this period that [the]… ‘Validity of race’ (Saul Dubow: 1994: 357) in the scientific field was being attacked. Sociologist Hider Kuper felt that the word …’ethnic could be used as a separation of culture from race’ (Saul Dubow: 1994:357). John grey, a sociologist at the Witswatersrand University used the word [ethnic]… ‘As a substitute for race’ (Saul Dubow: 1994: 358). The word ethnic soon found its way into the political and national arena as an alternative to race. The main bulk of theses studies came from South Africa and were used in the political spectrum to create a separation of distinct groups of humans based on cultural differences, kinship and pheno type differences. Under examination both are similar in that [race] is defined in the political sphere based on cultural, social and biological factors, and a new formulation of language. What seems to be new in P Gilroy’s analysis is the penetration of race theoretically into the spatial sphere of other discourses. In effect creating new boundaries within the discourse and then inverting into the concrete real world of ethnic groups and the nation as a whole. What can be deduced from this analysis is how those in politics create images from reality into verbal and textual language. To examine further the process of the racialization of political debate from the period of the 1940 onwards, concludes a move from the theoretical, ideological sphere into the arena of politics. This leads to the role of political action nationally and locally again within this context, the conception of immigration policies and how they interact within the notion of the theoretical and ideological identity of the nation. THE POLITICS OF IMMIGRATION Immigration is the defining area of the racialization of politics within this paradigm. The disciplines of capitalism and labour migration have a major key influence upon the politics of racism and immigration. Investigating this notion of race and immigration, leads to an examination of the post 1945 period and the shortage of labour in Industrial Britain. Therefore, leading to political policy formulation that was geared towards migrant labour. A Royal Commission Report published in 1949 states that the influx ‘140.000 workers needed annually’ (A Phizacklea: 1984:24) to fill vacancies in the industrial sectors. This report concluded that this amount of migrant labour supply, would pose major problems on the infrastructure of society. Supply of immigrants must be of ‘good stock’ (A Phizacklea: 1984:24) and were not to be prevented from assimilation into British society by ‘religion or race with the host population. (A Phizacklea: 1984:24) Here it is possible to clearly view from this piece of text that notions of race based on pheno type distinction, religion based on cultural distinction has entered policy. In effect the racialization of race and political debate and political policy implementation had occurred. For instance during the period of ‘1946 onwards 77,000 displaced persons, 8,000 Ukraine nationals, 1946 –1950, 88,000 East European nationals’ (A Phizacklea: 1984:23) where quietly settled in Britain, yet in ‘1948 the Ship SS Wind Rush arrived from Jamaica with 400’(A Phizacklea: 1984:25) West Indian migrants. Here lies the evidence that political debate is turned to the question of immigration restrictions based on race and colour. It is interesting to note that industrial owners dismissed this royal commissions report and against the fears of large scale immigration, this is precisely what occurred, because large section of ‘British Capitalism could not be maintained,’(A Phizacklea: 1984:25). In turn this action led to the ‘British nationally act of 1948’ which gave a signal that the, ‘commonwealth was a source of labour by defining all commonwealth citizens as British citizens’. (A phizacklea: 1984:25) So again political debate and contradictions have occurred within the political spectrum of immigration. It was during the period of 1950s, that paradigm of heightened racalization of political debate took place, as the influx of West Indian and Asian grew. In the House of Commons in the period of 1951, within the labour government, a ‘Cabinet committee was set up to review the mean to check immigration’ (A Phizacklea: 1984:25). One major important factor in the specific area of the racialization of political debate, rested on ‘John Hyde a Labour Mp, who managed to achieve an adjournment debate on the increase in the numbers of coloured immigrants’. (Phizacklea: 1984:27) The debate centred on the issues of restrictions of rights and principles of entry into Britain in effect to ‘controls the rights but not effect the principles of entry’. (Phizacklea: 1984:27). So here at the national level of politics it can be clearly viewed that issues of race and colour and immigration are entering the House of Commons and party politics. To investigate further this process of racialization of political debate is to scrutinize the effects on local societies in the respect of local politics. THE RACIALIZATION OF LOCAL POLITICS Party politics at the local level is a vital source of information. Investigating the local elections and the wider local political spectrum gives access the dynamical forces that act as conduit to national politics. For instance, beginning with the election campaign of ‘Smethwick, Birmingham’, (N Deakin: 1965:80) and the victory of the conservative candidate ‘Peter Griffith of a labour safe seat’ (N Deakin; 1965:80) exposes the role of councillors and the role of local Immigration Control Associations, specifically ‘designed as a pressure group to lobby the conservative party and government’ (N Deakin: 1965:4) and to win the minds of the local electorate. The chairman of the local ‘Smethwick Immigration Control Group’ (N Deakin: 1965:80) set in motion meetings and raised the issues of immigration. Letters to the ‘press by the chairman a Mr Finny assisted by friends spoke of the coloured takeover of the town’. (N Deakin: 1965:80). Combine this type of political action with local conservative councillor Griffith’s electoral statement ‘if you want another nigger neighbour, vote labour’ (N Deakin: 1965:82). Here explicitly, the racialization of political debate is being used as a tool for political advantage. Smethwick was to become a focus of attention, because it was here in the electoral campaign of Smetheick, Griffith forced the labour member publicly to state labour did not oppose immigration control. Griffith took the seat from Labour Mr Gordon Walker on the issue of immigration and all political parties took note, the conservative party ‘somewhat embarrassed and the labour party condemnatory’. (R Miles: 1987:7) Also the issue of local politics it is worth noting Griffith received support from the conservative party leadership, and ‘John Bean and Colin Jorden, members of the extreme right wing the British National Party ’(R Miles: 1997:7). Racist political parties such as National Front, The British National Party raised the issues of race, colour and nation for political debate and the enforcing of racial policies. Again within the local context it is worth noting in ‘1958 riots in Nottingham and London, political reaction to the riots was not to the riots themselves’ (A Phizacklea: 1984:33). Three main problems were identified. ‘A lack of respect of the law, lack of understanding in education, racial prejudice. The fourth carried the solution in response to the riots. Immigration control’ (A Phizacklea: 1984:34). The rise of Enoch Powell, MP, who became active in the sixties raised the political temperature by speeches such as the ‘Rivers of blood speech’ and statements such as ‘it is… truly when he looks into the eyes of Asia that the Englishman comes face to face with those who would dispute with him the possession of his native land’ (P Gilroy: 1997:250). Researching the book ‘Race and Borough Politics’ (F Reeves: 1989) on Wolverhampton reveals the open racist views of local councillors who use political influence to force agreements on appointments to local public bodies, associations, clubs and societies. Wolverhampton’s Conservative Nick Budgen MP turned down an invitation to become vice president of the Council for Community Relations, an honorary position. The local conservatives refuse to support planned multi cultural events. (F Reeves: 1989:161). CONCLUSION Under examination here a convergence of political thinking has occurred between the local level and national level. Not just only within the political spectrum, but also in the social sphere of society. This in effect, stimulates the racialization of political debate through race, nation and colour. Again leading to a physiological notion of race and nation within national politics. By socializing of politics, and building a conduit of fluidity of power by political parties, the cultural and political spectrum becomes a sphere for the role of power politics and the ‘identity dynamic’ (Mlinar Zdravko: 1992). Therefore, to be used on a nation through the role of semiology. In effect the methodological sphere used for the racialization of political debate lies in the notions of historical British imperialism and inserted into the psychological, cultural and political sphere of the nation and its people by the use of nations of race, and colour. This then creates the paradigm of fear, the fear of oneself by the notions of the other. Bibliography Nick Deakin: ‘Colour and the British Electorate’:(London: Pall Mall Press) 1965. Saul Dubow: ‘Ethnic Euphemisms and Racial Echoes’: in Journal of South African Studies: (Vol: 2: No: 3: Sept: 1994) 1994: P Gilroy: ‘The Whisper Wakes, the Shudder Plays’: ‘Race’, Nation and Ethnic Absolutism’ Paper in ‘Contempory Postcolonial theory’ Ed by Padmini Mongia:(London: Arnold: Hodder Headline group) 1997. Robert Miles and Annie Phizacklea: ‘white Man’s Country: Racism in British Politics’:(London: Pluto press) 1984. Robert Miles and Annie Phizacklea: ‘Racism and political Action in Britain’:(London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd) 1979. Frank Reeves: ‘Race & Borough Politics’: (Aldershot: Averbry) 1989. Mlinar Zdravko: ‘Globalisation and territorial identity’: (Hants: Avebury Ashgate Publishing Ltd).1992

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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