If experts can’t convince people, confront them with real life, says NATHAN AKEHURST
LAST month, a grandmother from Ouston, County Durham, was marched onto a flight by a squad of border officers. Between Dungavel detention centre and Edinburgh Airport, they gave her a few minutes on the phone to say goodbye to her sick British husband, a retired electrical engineer who she met in the 1980s. Irene Clennell was then flown out of Britain, potentially permanently.
Families are frequently broken up by the Home Office. One immigration solicitor I spoke to claims to see such cases around twice a week and bemoans a “Kafkaesque immigration system where families are told to quit their jobs and children told to leave their schools, to live in a country the children have never been to.”
And yet public awareness of the issue is extremely low, drowned out by the demand to reduce net migration at all costs.
Not this time. When Clennell was first taken from Middlesbrough to Dungavel at the end of January — a detention centre that the Home Office has recently reneged on promises to close — Buzzfeed published a moving account of her story, followed by BBC Scotland.
There was a ripple of press interest at the time, swelling to a tidal wave when the deportation news came through.
As Irene’s flight touched down in Singapore, correspondents boarded the London to Newcastle train, on their way to the Clennell family home.
Within hours, the Clennells’ quiet Durham village was besieged by a media scrum usually reserved for celebrities and Cabinet ministers.
US, Spanish, Singaporean and German news agencies clamoured for access. Even the generally anti-migration Sun and Daily Mail ran positive stories with extensive quotes from Irene and lines from migrant advocate groups.
Why did so many care? The situation struck a deep chord of unfairness. Even most migration critics wouldn’t be unmoved by a woman with a British husband, children and grandchild who had made a life here being kicked out at short notice.
Both Irene and her family made able spokespeople. Politicians from multiple parties were rallying to her cause. Rolling coverage was sustained for several days, until a YouGov poll put sympathy for Irene’s case at 63 per cent.
This included majorities in every section of British society — even 50 per cent of Ukip voters. A crowdfunding campaign doubled its target within days, enabling a fighting fund for Irene’s appeal. She may yet come home.
The affair contains valuable lessons for politicians hoping to regain popular support for migration. The serious ones understand that there is little benefit in trying to pick off “good” migrants at the expense of everyone else, or duck the issue — down that road lies Ed Miliband’s “controls on immigration” souvenir mugs.
They also understand that anti-migrant sentiment stretches the length of these islands, and repeatedly producing data showing the benefits of migration (new migrants return £1.34 on every £1 invested in them, for instance) goes down like a lead balloon.
There was much outrage at Michael Gove’s contention during the EU referendum that people are “fed up of experts.” The truth is probably more that people understand you can find an expert to say almost anything. When faced with the level of fear and insecurity that is a healthy response to an unstable world, people pull up drawbridges. All these things make communicating the benefits of migration a Sisyphean struggle.
But the Irene Clennell case provides a valuable principle. The statistics versus emotions debate can be resolved by storytelling.
If people say they are sick of being lectured by experts, confront them with real life. Confront them with a grandmother losing everything because of an out-of-touch, bureaucratic system.
Opposition to migration is highest in areas where migration is lowest. In short, you are less likely to be anti-migration if you know migrants. Not everyone can know a migrant, but reading a story narrated by one is the next best thing.
That story can be seeded with as many emotions and facts as necessary. And while much of the press has not been kind to the migration debate, more often than not, they will report on a good story. That’s the bread and butter of their work.
The story alone can do considerable heavy lifting, but there is a need for co-ordinated work on generalising from it.
Plenty of people who were sympathetic to Irene responded with something like: “Why are we kicking her out but not all these terrorists who are here because of human rights,” or similar explosions of tabloid word soup.
However, in much of the coverage, including a comment piece in the Guardian from Irene herself several days later, a clear line was present — that these cases are a direct result of the political desire to drive migration down.
The position was raised that it is arbitrary caps on numbers, along with scaremongering, that cause these harsh decisions to be made. And those that wish to defend driving down numbers relentlessly must defend deportations.
That argument was made easier by the conspicuous absence of the European Union from public debate on the issue. Polling indicates two-thirds of voters now prize their referendum vote above their party affiliation.
No-one who voted either way will give ground, and this is a distraction from the questions that should be being asked: if we are to “take control” from Brussels, what should we do with that control? What should British society look like and who should it be open to?
For as long as referendum affiliation dictates debates, these serious discussions about the fabric of our civic life will be evaded.
Certainly the government has little desire to facilitate such discussions beyond issuing vagaries about “British values.”
Public attitudes towards migration as a broad concept are not remarkably friendly. But there is consensus on Clennell, and by extension, consensus on keeping families together.
There is consensus from the Greens to Ukip on allowing European nationals the right to remain.
There is consensus on the principle of welcoming refugees and the anti-migrant lobby has had to adapt by questioning whether the refugees arriving are legitimate.
One would imagine there would be consensus on opposing a system which reserves free choice about family life to the better-off — which is what our spousal visa requirement system does in demanding that a British citizen bringing in a partner must earn over £18,000, regardless of the partner’s income.
I suspect there could be consensus on thornier issues, such as inhumane conditions in detention centres.
There are battles that can be won, that will both make a real difference to the lives of the most vulnerable, and act collectively to erode support for arbitrary caps on numbers.
This is, of course, a line of thinking that dwells primarily on strategy and communication. It needs to be backed up by concrete policy.
In a society notable for the isolation experienced by its inhabitants, we need to restore services that help communities integrate and hold spaces for migrants and host communities to interact and form bonds.
We need labour rights policies, properly enforced and strong unions to take on the scourge of low-paying enterprise which exploits migrant labour in order to drag down the conditions of domestic labour.
At the Fawley refinery in Hampshire last year, migrant workers organised and won equal pay rates. That — not border controls — is how we end undercutting.
These are all difficult arguments but they cannot be avoided.
And when thousands of desperate people die at European borders every year, while thousands more experience humiliating treatment at the hands of border authorities, it would be utterly irresponsible to avoid them.
The anti-migrant machine is powerful, but small.
It may have captured parts of public opinion, but it does not own public opinion — and it can be rocked, as Irene’s case demonstrates.
It consists of a relatively small number of the distant Establishment figures it claims to reject.
And the more people see that machine in action against ordinary, honest people like Irene Clennell, the more they will start to think differently about migrants and migration.