Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Political parties often strive to say they are the voices of the working people, usually with regards to migration. In his victory speech in Rochester & Strood, the new UKIP MP Mark Reckless opined “the radical tradition, which has stood and spoken for the working class, has found a home in UKIP”. The Conservatives use the slogan “for hardworking people”. When Labour politicians appear to break their historic cord with working people, the consequences are brutal and swift. The Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry was forced to resign, after posting a photograph of a house adorned with three St George’s flags on Twitter, with the caption ‘Image from Rochester’.
It’s that everyone has suddenly realised the working classes CARE, and are having a say, and it’s really scaring them, so they’re going for pints in pubs and scapegoating immigrants and praising white van drivers in such a patronising way then wondering why they aren’t getting thousands of new supporters.
There is a peculiar assertion, implicitly made by contemporary politicians, that working people are uniquely obsessed by immigration. It should be noted the standard segmentation between the working, middle and upper classes has eroded. The BBC’s Great British Class Survey proposed a model with seven classes, rather than the typical three classes.
The 31st British Social Attitudes Survey involved 3,244 people in 2013, seeking answers to a various social questions, such as the tempestuous subject of immigration. 77% of respondents wanted immigration reduced; 56% replied it should be cut “a lot”. Responders have become significantly more restrictive since 2011. The percentage of Britons who believe that incoming migration should be increased has remained consistently low.
The acuities of immigration vary across society. Only 22% of workers in semi-routine and routine occupations think immigration has a positive economic impact, whereas 45% of managers and professional employees share that view. With 60% agreeing, university graduates overwhelmingly believed immigration was good for the British economy, but just 17% of respondents with only GCSEs or no qualifications concurred. A similar disparity exists for culture: 23% of routine workers believe inward migration is culturally enriching, in contrast to 48% of managers.
However, believing migration is beneficial does not easily translate into wanting less restrictive policies. In the survey, a majority of people who answered that immigration was economically good still wanted immigration reduced; a similar majority made the analogous statement about cultural consequences. Whilst larger proportions of Britons in lower-skilled jobs want immigration reduced, more than half of graduates and managers also desired a decline. This is not a concern isolated to one class.
The 29th British Social Attitudes Survey split their interviewees, asking them about migrants of various skill levels from either ‘Eastern Europe’ or ‘Muslim countries like Pakistan’. The support for professional workers filling jobs from either region was very similar. There were more negative perceptions about unskilled labourers coming from countries like Pakistan, than from Eastern Europe. This suggests strong economic profiles primarily induce a favourable perception – or those cultural differences are considered smaller amongst these professionals. Cultural concerns are secondarily used to differentiate between those with fewer skills.
Anxieties about immigration are not intrinsically connected to race or nationality, but attributed to skills. It also implies, when politicians reflexively speak of foreign doctors if the subject of immigration arises, they are speaking at cross-purposes with their constituents. A further survey, with a larger sample size, would improve the robustness of this result.
There is a rutted divide between general and specific beliefs about immigration and migrant groups. Immigration debates are often fought between the two extremes: the rejectionists who would like ‘we’re full’ carved into the white cliffs of Dover, and those who seek no limits at all. Most British people actually want constrained immigration: 61% of Britons believe “we should control it and choose the immigration that’s in Britain’s best interests”. Moreover, racism does not appear to be a substantial factor in the pursuit of these reformist policies.
Political parties often mistake immigration policy for an exclusive fixation of the working classes – to be placated with ‘tough’ announcements – when the complex anxieties about immigration nestle far deeper.