I could see the opinion pieces coming as soon as it became clear we’d voted for Brexit. There would be the indignant ones of course, but there would also be those that explained away the referendum result as a protest vote about immigration, and concluded that people had concerns that might be ‘valid’ and should therefore be ‘listened to’. They would write with clear undertones implying that Leave voters were racist, whilst proposing that they should be humoured for a while as an unfortunate but necessary concession given their recent electoral success.
This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of why people are motivated to vote based on immigration. It comes from people whose lives are largely going well, and whose families have a secure place in the world. They can see how immigration benefits them – through providing an extra flow of labour for the businesses they own, work in, or buy from. They enjoy multi-culturalism and the variety it brings to their surroundings. They are clearly benefiting from immigration, and so cannot understand why someone would be against it; except for racism.
But many people come from a very different starting point. They don’t understand how their country can have room for immigrants when it doesn’t seem to have room for their own children. The root of their concern is not immigration: it is the decline of their community and the failure of politics to offer a viable solution for turning it around. They are not worried about immigrants stealing their houses – they are worried about not having a house. They’re not worried about immigrants stealing their job – they’re worried about not having a job. They’re not worrited about immigrant children at the local school – they’re worried that the local school is failing. The problem is not immigration, the problem is scarcity and decline.
The politicians and commentators who now declare that they will start listening to people’s concerns about immigration need to understand where those concerns come from. They need to understand that people have developed concerns about immigration precisely because politics has failed to offer any other compelling solution to their problems. And it seems reasonable to believe, in the absence of any better idea, that a good way to ensure you can afford to have a house is to have fewer people wanting houses.
More than once during the referendum campaign I spoke to people my age who were voting leave not because of a deeply held view about the European Union, but because it was at least trying something. They had so little faith that our political parties would create any meaningful reforms, and they were so frustrated with the present outlook, that it just seemed worth the risk. These people are not racists. They are not misguided about Britain’s place in the world. They just think that it has to be better to try something than to try nothing.
And that’s why we do not need conciliatory gestures where politicians listen to people’s concerns about immigration. Firstly we do not need them because immigration is not the real problem, and it would push us to focus on net migration figures instead of the root causes of the problem. We do not need to give more airtime to the politics of immigration, or to the politicians who seek to hijack it for their personal gain. Rather we have a duty to stand unambiguously alongside immigrant communities and make it absolutely clear that they are and will continue to be welcome. They have fought in our wars, cared for our sick and kept our economy going through recession, and we have a moral duty to be vocal about that.
Secondly, we need to do, not to listen. It is listening that has led us here. In every campaign, every politician listens, and after every campaign they talk about listening more. A round of listening to concerns about immigration will not build houses, create jobs or improve schools. We know what the concerns are, we know what’s causing them, and we know what needs to be done. The question is whether we have the commitment to do it.
Our politicians should see last week’s referendum as a mandate to be more ambitious in their policy and challenge the unwritten rules of the status quo. They should be more determined to solve the rumbling problems that have been left unchecked for years. The referendum showed that people are ready to do radical things to try and improve our country. Politicians now need to follow suit.