Immigration and honesty: politicians think they know what voters want. They’re wrong.
For many politicians, the British electorate’s hostility to immigration at its current level and in its current form is taken as a given, a simple unchangeable fact. The assumption that voters will always favour the policies and rhetoric of lower migration informs much of our political debate.
The implications of this assumption are profound. If the Conservatives win the general election and fulfil their manifesto commitment of a Brexit that puts Britain outside the EU Single Market, that will be the consequence of their estimation of public opinion on immigration. Because, it is thought, voters are heavily opposed to current levels of migration, no Brexit deal that might allow continued large-scale movement of people from the EU could ever be acceptable. Perhaps the most fundamental change in Britain’s economic settlement for a generation will come about because politicians believe that voters demand big cuts in net migration above all else.
The Social Market Foundation exists to make markets work better and more fairly, because markets are the best way to create and spread wealth. That includes the labour market. We also work to make political debate about facts and evidence, not conjecture and assumption.
Applying those principles to the immigration debate, we note the overwhelming weight of evidence, amassed by think-tanks, academics, businesses and governments, suggests that making a country’s labour market open to people from other countries brings benefits to the economy. Inversely, closing that market to those people will reduce or even reverse those economic benefits.
We also believe that this evidence should be put more prominently before the British electorate, so they can reach the best-informed decision on an issue that, as noted above, has enormous implications for their country.
We hope that this research will help to demonstrate to politicians of all parties that a different, better approach to immigration is possible – if they are prepared to show more courage and candour when talking about the issue.