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How to talk about immigration
03 May, 2018

Assimiliation, not diversity

A key explanation for whether an individual voted Remain or Leave was not their economic circumstances, age or education but whether their values were for open or ordered views of society. Immigration is an important factor. Talking up diversity unsettles those with closed views; they are calmed when shown how immigrants assimilate. London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes.

Why people voted Leave

17 million voters means at least 17 million reasons. The left-behind explanation will work for many though perhaps as much in a cultural as in an economic sense.

But for many the vote will have been about values. Professor Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College writes “Age, education, national identity and ethnicity are more important than income or occupation. But to get to the nub of the Leave-Remain divide, we need to go even deeper, to the level of attitudes and personality.It is more important than being a loser from globalization, a point he has been making since 24 June 2016.

He goes on to demonstrate that good predictors of Leave voting include support for the death penalty; and a belief that it is more important for children to learn to have good manners than to be considerate.

That is, people whose core values include openness, a willingness to embrace difference voted Remain; those whose core values were for a more ordered society, who saw the world as threatening and wished to protect themselves against it voted Leave. The latter group are more opposed to immigration.

(A similar analysis works to explain Donald Trump’s victory in the USA election.)

Changing minds: meeting strangers

Professor Kaufmann looked at how attitudes to immigration related to the experience of living in or near racially mixed areas. He found that in wards that are almost entirely white, 90 per cent of White British people want immigration to be reduced – the figures are higher if there are non-white populations nearby; but where visible minorities make up half or more of the population, this figure drops to about 70 per cent. He explicitly disproves the hypothesis that the reduction is due to white flight (so it is not that the most racist people leave). Half the effect arises because whites in diverse wards tend to be young single urban renters, all relatively tolerant segments.

The other half of the explanation, however, seems to involve ‘contact’: mixing with minorities or becoming accustomed to their presence. Encouraging the social cohesion work that many Boroughs undertake would help here, even in the few months that are left before the referendum on the terms. Rotherham faced particular difficulties and is tackling them with the National Citizens Service and initiatives like Let’s Drink Tea Together.

We should not exaggerate: 70% is still a majority. But it is a step in the right direction: tolerance, acceptance of difference, seeing people as individuals.

Meet my favourite person from the 2016 referendum

There were few people who were heard around the time of the referendum who said something worthwhile, but please meet Sophie Whittaker from Leeds. She clearly lived in difficult circumstances – an unemployed hairdresser, a single mother in a privately-rented flat plagued by mice.

She was interviewed in July 2016 by the BBC. She had not voted in the referendum but had this to say: "If you'd asked me last year I'd have said, 'Send them all back' but now I have Romanian neighbours I feel nasty saying that.".

On the basis of these few paragraphs she is one of the few people I admire in the whole Brexit debacle.

She was presumably brought up to view foreigners with suspicion or hostility. And then she changed her mind.

I do not suppose her Romanian neighbours were particularly angelic. I would guess that they were normal people, trying to get on, trying to get by. Just like everyone else.

And Sophie Whittaker had the heart to see that normal humanity in her neighbours, to overcome what was perhaps years of conditioning, to realise how unappealling her old views were and to come up with new, kind views. That is a real triumph of her heart.

Changing minds: the assimilation narrative

Professor Eric Kaufmann in a short LSE blog from 1 October 2016 sets out his finding that White British people become more worried about immigration when they hear stories about Britain's increasing diversity; and that they become less worried about immigration when they hear stories about how well immigrants integrate.

Both stories are true.

Of course one piece of research does not amount to proof of anything. But there are clear lessons here for considering how to talk with Leave voters about immigration. If we can find a better descriptive language to address voter concern on immigration, we can materially improve the chances of winning the referendum on the terms.

A fuller report dated 5 December 2017 on his experiment is here. This link is to an interview where he discusses his views. And here is a link to Kaufmann’s November 2014 article setting out a fictitious letter from the Prime Minister to a UKIPPER that illustrates his point and might provide useful lines for use in street campaigns.

 

 

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