Barring an unforeseen turn of events, it looks like immigration is going to be the main issue during next spring's general election. We're just going to have to get used to it. Even if Labour focuses on health and the Tories on the economy, popular debate will inevitably bring the migrant worker lens to bear (pressure on public services, pressure on wages etc). This will be the case even for media-darlings UKIP, whose by-election experience since Eastleigh has taught them to emphasise the migrant angle at every opportunity, even when campaigning for a pro-migration candidate like Duncan Carswell. The call for a referendum on the EU has already been rebranded as "taking our country back".
As Left Outside noted, this points to a paradox: "How do you make policy to confront a problem which doesn’t exist. The solutions are already rolled out. The poor can’t marry foreigners. You can’t bring your family over if you’re poor. There is no legal way for asylum seekers to enter the country. EU enlargement is over for a generation and EU immigration numbers are now dictated by the relative strengths of different parts of Western Europe. The better the UK does relative to Southern Europe the more migration we’ll see." (And, he might have added, the more the UK's contribution to the EU budget will increase).
In truth, the debate on immigration is more about stock than flow, i.e. those migrants who are already here, and in particular those suspected of being reluctant to integrate. The focus of concern is on signifiers of cultural incompatibility, such as young men running away to join ISIS, organised sexual abuse and even halal meat. Fifty years ago, the violence, sexual exploitation and funny smelling food of West Indians played a similar role in the popular imagination. As Notting Hill in 1958 showed, very few people are out-and-out racists, simply because seeing the world through such a narrow perspective requires a degree of intellectual commitment that borders on monomania, but a lot of us are unthinking xenophobes.
In Britain, this low-level hum of contempt for foreigners has a long and respectable pedigree, being intimately bound up with the creation of first English and then British identity (biffing the French, building an empire, biffing the Hun). Though the casual bigotry of 50 years ago ("no blacks, no dogs, no Irish") has disappeared, you don't have to dig deep to discover a sullen resentment ("I'm not racist but ..."). For all the bland internationalism of the liberal centre, British popular culture remains wedded to the celebration of native ignorance, from self-defeating football tactics to Jeremy Clarkson winding up Argies. The idea that Britain is under threat of being "swamped" by foreigners who covet our wealth and despise our liberties isn't going to die away any time soon, not least because this attitude is anything but socially marginal.
Of course the world it conjures up is wholly fictitious. According to Ipsos MORI, "the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%. There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11% (or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups)". It's worth emphasising that these two subsets (immigrants and Blacks/Asians) are not coterminus - i.e. lots of immigrants are white and lots of Blacks and Asians are native-born - however I suspect the 31% and 30% figures largely overlap for most of those polled. After all, it's not easy to determine the migrant status of someone in the street, but it's easy to spot someone with a black or brown skin.
But this is not a real street. As the pollsters found, almost 80% of us think immigration is a problem nationally, but less than 30% think it is a problem in our local area (see page 90 of this longer report). This discrepancy surely reflects our view of the mythical Britain created in ideological discourse. That UKIP should be most popular in areas with the lowest immigration is hardly surprising as these are also the most traditional and "anti-modern" areas. The general concern over immigration appears to reflect a fear that this mythical Britain is disappearing, though we seem broadly comfortable with the outcome in our own locality and even nationally, when push comes to shove - e.g. the Olympics. The more specific concern of UKIP voters appears to reflect the growing gulf between their local experience and that of "modern" Britain, in which immigration stands proxy for broader social change (precarious employment, unaffordable housing, gay marriage etc).
The chief reason for over-estimating, according to the poll respondents themselves (page 24), is the belief that illegal immigrants aren't being counted, however the barking implication of this is that over half of all immigrants (and perhaps even half of all Blacks and Asians) are illegal. This belief presumably helps fuel the periodic panics over failures in migration control and border security, not to mention the enoblement of Andrew Green and Michael Fallon's hyperbolic language. In terms of immigrant composition, we underestimate students and over-estimate asylum-seekers (page 76), possibly because of our different expectations of their likely futures (students to go home, refugees to stay), and we appear to be "less open to immigrants of a different race/ethnic group from the British majority compared with immigrants of the same race/ethnic group" (page 80). Well, whadda ya know.
The persistence of this ignorance frustrates the left not just because it is resistant to mere facts (e.g. that immigration provides net benefits) but because it distracts from the more fundamental causes of low wages, welfare cuts and insufficient housing. This has led some (and not just Blue Labour types) to advocate a strategy of "understanding more and condemning less". The problem with this approach is that understanding quickly comes up short against the wall of ignorance, which can easily lead to the diversion of your frustration elsewhere. John Harris fell into this trap recently when addressing free movement of labour in the EU: "What passes for the modern left tends to be far too blase about all this. Perhaps those who reduce people’s worries and fears to mere bigotry should go back to first principles, and consider whether, in such laissez-faire conditions, free movement has been of most benefit to capital or labour." As Chris Dillow pointed out, immigration is largely a wash in the tussle between capital and labour. The bigger gains to capital have come through the export of jobs, not the import of workers.
Harris also wheeled out the well-worn canard that immigrants increase pressure on public services: "There have also been inevitable problems surrounding how far schools and doctors’ surgeries have been stretched". The stretching has more to do with cuts in public expenditure, secular trends (e.g. ageing) and short-run fluctuations (e.g. the Portakabin bulge in London primary schools) than the impact of immigrants over the last decade. In fact, immigrants tend to be a boon for public services as they reduce per capita demand because they are disproportionately healthier (being of working age) and initially have fewer children and other dependents than the native population. Though this works itself out in time - they settle, have kids (keeping the population up) and grow old - the idea that they have a major short-term impact reflects a confusion between independent economic migrants and needy refugees.
Harris exhibits the limitations of the understanding strategy when he starts to sound like a rightwing opinion-monger from central casting: "There again, do the shrill voices accusing them of pandering to prejudice have any convincing stance of their own? Or is the fashionable metropolitan option still to cast aspersions on millions of people, and then look the other way?" When you are reduced to caricaturing fashionable metropolitan opinion in the Guardian, you're clearly on a hiding to nothing. To be fair to Harris, I don't have a cunning plan either, beyond patient dialogue, but I do think it is important not to subscribe to a counsel of despair that perhaps springs from a contempt for the intellectual capability of the working class. I also think it is equally important to call out bigotry when you find it. Remember, this is about stock not flow. "No Romanians, no benefit tourism" can quickly morph into "no Muslims, no foreign jabber".