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Politicians need to change their tune on immigration in the UK, says Birkbeck academic

A Birkbeck professor of politics placed a report by the Home Affairs Select Committee on immigration in the United Kingdom under the spotlight, claiming it neglects the real issues.

Professor Eric Kaufmann from the Department of Politics is calling on politicians to find more effective ways to measure public opinion on immigration, claiming the use of focus groups could lead to biased outcomes as a result of peer-group pressure.

A recent report from the Home Affairs Select Committee, ‘Immigration Policy: Basis for Building Consensus’, addresses public concerns over immigrants relying on the welfare system in the UK, among several other economic and social issues.

In their recent article for think-tank Policy Exchange, ‘Why Culture Trumps Skills: Public opinion on immigration’, Professor Kaufmann and co-author David Goodhart responded to the report, claiming ‘opposition to immigration is largely cultural and psychological’ rather than an economic hostility.

Professor Kaufmann said the report ‘makes many helpful suggestions, including the idea of an annual migration report, streamlined immigration processing and the importance of balancing competing interests’.

However, he continued: “It’s a touchy subject, so while you may be able to get people to state their preferences [through focus groups], it is harder to get at the real reasons. A survey experiment, by altering the choices that different groups of survey respondents see, allows us to get at this question – albeit imperfectly.”

Professor Kaufmann conducted a survey in November 2017 which posed a series of questions to more than 1600 people (the majority of whom were White Britons) who were gradually asked to trade-off between high-skill/high-intake and low-skill/low- intake options.

By examining views on different types of ‘immigration’ rather than the individual immigrants and looking at the demographic effect, the researchers found ethnicity or culture was a more important influence on attitude than economic concern.

Professor Kaufmann, who hails from Vancouver in Canada which he says ‘continues to be transformed from immigration from Asia’, added: “Talking about the economic benefits of immigration or moving money to high-immigrant areas will not affect public opinion because when people say they are worried about the economic effects of immigration, this is a rationalisation, not the main driver of their anxiety.”

Professor Kaufmann has spoken at both Labour and Conservative Party conferences in 2016 on this point and is appealing to politicians to change tack and stop focusing on traditional approaches based on ‘appealing to voter economic interest’.

Drawing on findings from another experimental study he recently published in the journal Political Studies, he said: “Political figures need to highlight to conservative whites how much intermarriage and voluntary assimilation is currently occurring. This can help reassure those who fear that the ethnic majority (White British people) will steadily decline.”

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