Evidence and the politics of the UK migration debate – is there hope?

This is a blog on a session from ‘Evidence and the Politics of Policymaking: Where next?’, a Symposium from the Institute for Policy Research and Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at the University of Bath, September 14-15 2016. Highlights and recordings from the Symposium can be found here.

By Britta K. Matthes

Migration has been at the centre of the recent EU referendum and the so-called refugee crisis and it has led to critical (self-)reflection among academics and others working in the field. The migration panel at the recent CDS and IPR Symposium on “Evidence and the Politics of Policy making: what next?” brought together three migration experts to share their insights.

Marley Morris, of the IPPR argued that migration policy is in an “effective stalemate” because of the huge economic and political challenges to achieving its avowed aim of driving down net-migration produce. He argued that it is not that policy makers do not listen to evidence, but that it is frequently the wrong evidence that is used – which is, for example, of poor quality due to underlying data sources, or fails to distinguish different types of migration or, is simply used badly. Indeed, in the Brexit debate all sides used evidence in highly misleading ways. A key consequence is that the public started “switching off”, having lost trust in the facts and figures presented. Moreover, public trust is undermined when politicians continually insist on the net migration target, fail to meet it and fail to respond to concerns actually expressed by citizens. However, he pointed to three positive features of post-referendum UK: first, migration policy is now interrogated as never before; second, many people are truly undecided (not necessarily opposed to migration) and might be willing to take on board new evidence; and finally, the data available has started to improve.

Tim Finch, founding director of the Migration Communications Hub, an organisation that seeks to strengthen communication about and for migrants, started by recalling a workshop, which took place some years ago, with people opposed to migration. The participants had rejected all the evidence presented: Tom had found that “challenging their strong feelings with other facts was just adding to their insecurity”. He argued that the current migration debate is “completely wrong-headed” in its repetition of certain types of evidence: politicians would have to find new ways to communicate, especially given that many effects of migration – such as the creativity of migrants – cannot be expressed statistically. In an era of higher migration, Finch himself was convinced that migration is positive for economies and societies if managed sensitively. Such management would require a “more rich and meaningful dialogue”, and would have to pay attention to “building a new, shared culture”. Nevertheless, he concluded that “we will have to have an open-ended, iterative, and lived negotiation, which constantly goes on”.

Emma Carmel, of the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at Bath, described migration as an “extreme” policy field, which can also tell us about the relation of evidence, politics and policy more generally. She reflected that evidence is always highly politicised: she therefore recommended reorienting our focus away from problematizing how evidence is treated in policy making, since this implies that there is or can be a rational ideal of its role. We should instead direct our attention to how evidence is translated into knowledge. The driver of policy making is not evidence, but how we interpret and understand it. She elaborated on four central characteristics of this fuzzy space in which evidence becomes knowledge: knowledge and policy making are partial, contingent, intuited and related to practice. Knowledge is always embedded in a context, and this has to be treated seriously: not by trying to control it, but by attempting to access it. “If we attend to these kinds of characteristics (…), then we might stop chasing after the Holy Grail of evidence-based reasoning.”

Kicking off the discussion, Nick Pearce asked the panellists how lived experiences or intuitive knowledge could be brought into policy making and how in this, antagonistic positions could be resolved. Tim Finch insisted that forums for richer discussions would be needed, as the kinds of short conversations and interactions that are commonly used (e.g., canvassing by MPs) do not enable people’s concerns to be properly understood. His experience demonstrated that antagonism was often resolved through longer debates. However, Emma Carmel argued that we should not suppose we can overcome conflicting views in society, as these are linked to identity, injustice, and so on. Still, an open discussion and public space for that discussion is much needed.

The debate also highlighted the importance of how issues are framed in public debates: these need to properly address people’s concerns, which do not operate at the level of the evidence. As Finch put it: “No one lives at the macro level”. Graham Room argued that not just a different framing, but a more intelligent framing is needed. Policy-makers need to connect, to pick up on and understand the feelings of the public, as these are a clue to deeper problems in society.

Overall, this panel session raised important and thought-provoking questions about the way evidence is used in this area of policy. It provoked a debate about the relationship whose relevance goes far beyond migration policy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s