Campaigns to protect immigrants are arguing with themselves

By Leon Bailey-Green

At our breakfast event in December we’ll be exploring how charities communicate with atypical supporters, reaching out beyond the echo chamber.

An organisation that stands out to me as preaching to the converted is the JCWI (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants), which runs a series of campaigns aimed at public acceptance of immigration.

When I see their campaigns I always wonder who exactly they are aimed at, and at what purpose. Despite what some campaigners and media outlets would have you believe, the public isn’t against immigration.

Various polls show concerns over the levels of immigration, but not the movement of people in itself. Every major political party is in favour of immigration, with differences in approach (who and how many). And the Brexit campaign was fought on control of immigration, not the end of it.

All in all, you’ll struggle to find anyone of sound mind in public life, or in the street, who wants an end to all immigration full stop.

It is for this reason that I feel the JCWI, and in particular their I Am An Immigrant campaign, which seeks to, in their words, “challenge the negative rhetoric against immigrants, celebrate them and provide them with a platform to share their story”, misses the mark. The cause isn’t in tune with where society at large is.

They’re arguing for acceptance of immigrants, when all the major influencers of politics, and the overwhelming majority of the public, already accept it. Perhaps they should keep the focus on migration numbers and the system, where there is real difference of opinion.

I’ve always found it baffling that immigration and immigrants need to be celebrated, as it infers the default position is despised, for which there is no evidence.

If they’re going after the minority of voters that mark the cross for extreme far right parties, I’m afraid it’s a little naive to think a poster campaign can change their attitudes. It might make the people behind the campaign feel good, but it’s a waste of resources trying to make the unreasonable reasonable.

Whatever injustices there are in the immigration system that need highlighting, the JCWI may be doing its work a disservice by turning off those of us who feel patronised by its messaging. Which is a shame if they want support beyond their typical audience.

That’s just one example of a campaign which appears to preach to the converted. Drew and I will be discussing others at our event in December; find out more about it here.

A response from Drew Lindon

Leon, you and I have a very different impression of how the different political parties feel about immigration, how the Brexit campaign was fought, and more. Bear with me – I’ll get back to the JCWI campaign, but for context, I want to address some of the wider points you made. I disagree with your portrayal of the main political party positions, but for space I’ll leave your comments about them for now.

In terms of the general population’s attitudes to immigration, you paint a rosy, but inaccurate picture. The number of hate crimes have jumped since the referendum result (according to National Police Chiefs’ Council). There’s been a particular spike in crimes against Eastern Europeans. Whether you believe that’s the canary in the coalmine of racist attitudes, or the actions of a few violent idiots is up to you. But there is a real issue out there. While the referendum vote and campaign may have had little to do with this, these figures suggest to me that there is a least a contingent of British society that felt, and feels, that Brexit means get the immigrants out.

Don’t just take my word for it. There’s copious evidence out there that the public is not accepting of migrants more generally; The Migration Observatory has collected data from 2013 showing that 77% of the public want immigration reduced. Taking a source I know you’re familiar with, Migration Watch UK has collected copious polls (helping to back up their own campaigning aims) that the public are concerned with, or want less immigration. They draw from the 2014 British Social Attitudes Survey which showed 47% of respondents thinking that immigration had a bad or very bad impact on the British economy (with only 31% thinking it had a good impact). So there is actually lots of evidence that attitudes to immigration are negative, and worsening.

Given that you and I are coming at this issue from completely different perceptions of how our society feels about immigration, I’m not surprised that the JCWI’s campaign doesn’t work for you. If you’re starting from the impression that society is broadly happy with immigration as a concept, but just wants control, then sure, what is the point of a campaign to challenge (apparently non-existent) negative attitudes towards immigrants? However, if you take my view and evidence I’ve presented, then there is a need for this type of campaign.

I think you’re right that the format of the campaign may not convince those whose attitudes to immigration are made up. But you will face that problem with any campaign – there is always likely to be a hardcore grouping who cannot be convinced. Where I think this campaign would be most effective would be at engaging people who do not have much experience of knowing, living or working with immigrants, but have built up a negative impression through other means. Giving positive and genuine examples of immigrants’ lives may well give some people have a more rounded view of immigration overall, if not change their minds.

You’ve got a point that this campaign (or future campaigns by JCWI) might profit from engaging on some of those nuances that you identify – e.g. control of borders, numbers of immigration, etc. But if the basis of belief (and evidence) is that the British public doesn’t have a good impression of immigrants, it seems sensible to challenge that perception first. More detailed conversations would be tainted by that perception. As JCWI states elsewhere on their website, they’re aiming to create a positive and balanced debate (obviously kindred spirits with us here at Campaign Clash!).

Finally, one last point which is more general. Often you do still need to preach to the converted; to inform your supporters of an issue, and inspire them to take wider action. Depending on the extent to which JCWI can promote their messages, this may help inspire people who would usually be receptive to their goals to take action.

Bottom line: to you, the campaign is unconvincing because you don’t see the need for it. So, would you be more likely to be engaged if JCWI could demonstrate that there is a genuine problem of negative attitudes out there?

Leon’s final word

In terms of party political positions, every party is in favour of immigration. There are only ever discussions about skilled vs non-skilled, EU vs non-EU and how many. If I’m wrong show me a manifesto from the Conservatives, Labour, UKIP, Greens, or Lib Dems which demonstrates an intention to end immigration.

Am I wrong to paint a rosy picture of the country’s attitude to immigration?

The link you provided claimed 2,300 hate crimes taking place in London, in the 38 days after the referendum. There are 8.6m people living in London, around 3 million of which are foreign born. Couple this with increased reporting as has been encouraged by the media narrative – the numbers paint quite a positive, relative, picture. Hate crimes aren’t blighting the every day experiences of minorities. Why anyone would be insistent on painting a negative picture is beyond me.

The other research you mention doesn’t represent the public having a bad attitude towards immigration. They show widespread dissatisfaction with immigration policy – get it right. My argument still stands.

Just because I have a negative view of policy – which fails to take into account provision of public services, integration, wage depression – it does not represent a ‘worsening’ attitude to immigrants as people. Campaigning groups ought to take this on board, instead of assuming views from the right are focused on people – let me make it clear, the problem is policy.

It’s patronising to say the I Am An Immigrant will give people who have no experience of immigrants a more rounded view of immigration. Even if it had merit it’s highly unlikely to have been the reason for the campaign, as I saw these posters plastered across London where it’s very difficult not to interact with anyone born abroad!

I don’t buy that JCWI wants positive and balanced debate. That would require them to call out the negatives of immigration, but their mantra is immigration good, opposition bad.

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