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Immigration is not the issue

Immigration is not a real concern for voters, argues Daniel Sohenge, but the language around it is a major problem. We must demand a new approach – prioritising dignity and respect

5 to 6 minute read

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage speaking at a rally with a backdrop reading 'Britain needs reform'

There is a lot of talk at the moment about the impact immigration had on the General Election results. Notably, the commentary is focused on anti-immigration arguments and the need for ‘tougher’ policies – even while results suggest that voters want the opposite.

The Liberal Democrats took 57 seats off the Conservatives, while the Greens won all four of the seats they targeted. The simple reality is that more people voted for parties offering a positive narrative on immigration than they did for Reform, which pushed anti-immigration policies.

Yet the topic of immigration cannot be overlooked. It played a substantial part in debates and interviews around the election, despite polling showing that roughly 75 per cent of the electorate did not see it as a main priority. But immigration itself was not the issue – it was the language and rhetoric around it that grabbed headlines.

Seats that Reform won, such as Nigel Farage in Clacton, have lower than the national average immigration – and above average deprivation. This makes them prime spots for anti-immigration language – and scapegoating in general – to take hold. When people are suffering they want someone to blame. 

This ‘othering’ effect used by parties such as Reform, and increasingly across Europe, is only reinforced by other parties playing into it – such as Labour talking about ‘caps’ and ‘control’ and the media amplifying those messages.

Obscured realities

The reality of migration is well known to anyone who looks at the research. Migrants create jobs, prop up public services, pay substantially more into the country than native citizens, and take out substantially less. They have little to no impact on wages – and where they do, it tends to be positive apart from, ironically, for the very lowest paid migrants already living in a country. 

Rather than being a drain on housing stock, migrants help ensure that the construction industry can keep operating and tend to use fewer houses than equivalent sized families of native citizens. This does not get mentioned enough in the media. Instead, scaremongering and unfounded claims about immigration grabs headlines.

We have serious, genuine, problems in this country. Not a single one of them is caused by immigration. Without migrants, there would be no NHS at all, education systems would collapse, and the country would grind to a halt. 

The problem for parties such as Labour is that the issues we have are complex. They need complex, thought-through solutions that are a lot harder to explain to voters than the supposed quick fix of cutting immigration. If Labour does not offer such solutions and make efforts to explain them, but instead continues pushing a hostile narrative about immigration, it is inevitable that parties like Reform will gain more seats at the next election.

Fourteen years of Conservative governance has shown that you can never go far enough for those people who really do want immigration cut, or stopped completely. We now need a complete change in the way in which we discuss migration, and the policies surrounding it. We need more focus from journalists to actually address misinformation about immigration – rather than allowing it to spread in some misguided attempt at ‘balance’.

A new approach

A good first step on the part of the new Labour government was to scrap the inhumane, and unworkable, Rwanda plan on day one. Imagine just how much good the estimated quarter billion pounds already wasted on it could have done if had been invested into local communities to support people who need it?

Much more needs to be done to shift the rhetoric on immigration. Based on Labour’s manifesto commitments, it seems unlikely that it will be. The sort of divisive ‘othering’ which we have seen happening for years looks set to continue. 

Language surrounding ‘control’ and legality further adds to the dehumanisation of migrants. It frames human beings as problems to be dealt with rather than as people like you and me. It will take sustained pressure from the Liberal Democrats and Green Party to make a difference to language and to policy.

We need to show that immigration is not the cause of people’s problems

Previous policies which sought to limit immigration have been shown to have failed spectacularly. They have only led to an increase in people becoming undocumented – thereby putting more people at risk of exploitation. The only group benefiting are the very gangs the Conservative government claimed their policies will ‘smash’. That language seems difficult for the new government to shake.

The Illegal Migration Act specifically stopped asylum applications from being processed, a move compounded by the decision to withdraw existing claims without full review. Rather than ‘reduce the backlog’, these actions left more people in limbo and reliant on Home Office accommodation, increasing both the health impacts on those individuals and raising costs. These policies have directly led to increased court time being taken up by appeals for applicants wrongfully withdrawn, costing yet more money and time.

Time to act

We need policies which, among other things, reduce visa costs, scrap the Immigration Health Surcharge and Minimum Income Requirements for spouses, provide those seeking asylum with the right to work, and ensure that all undocumented migrants can have their statuses regularised. That is just for starters.

We need a complete change in the way in which we provide accommodation for asylum seekers, and all migrants, to reduce destitution and homelessness. We need policies which do not leave people reliant on already underfunded local authorities.

Following the prisons watchdog description of an immigration detention centre as having the ‘worst conditions ever seen’ we also urgently need an overhaul of the detention system. The UK remains the only country in Europe that uses indefinite detention for immigration, leaving people without cause or charge to be locked up indefinitely, wrecking their mental and physical health. The practice must end.

These few policies alone would help cut government costs on immigration, and bring in much-needed revenue, as more people in the UK are able to earn and spend money and pay taxes. More than this, such politics will show that Labour is serious about treating everyone fairly. 

Where someone is born should not shape their being treated with respect. Through rhetoric and policy action, we need to show that immigration is not the cause of people’s problems – but that it plays a substantial part in solving them. 

Daniel Sohege is the director of the human rights advocacy and support organisation Stand For All

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