Dealing with the real inhibitors

July 16, 2015

We were reminded of the limitations of research and rational argument while attending today’s launch of Worlds Apart, a report by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry about making the immigration system work for London businesses.

The Chamber of Commerce, supported by survey research by ComRes, produced a well-thought through report. It includes six sensible and modest recommendations for the Government to enable the visa system to be shaped to maximise the contribution of non-European Economic Area (EEA) workers to the London economy.

We can safely expect the Government to ignore the report.

Why? With a painfully small majority in the House of Commons, the Government needs to talk tough on immigration to keep all its backbenchers on side, especially during pre-referendum negotiations with Europe. Moreover, having missed previous net migration targets and unable to do anything to control migration within Europe, one of the few levers it has is restricting the ability of UK businesses to employ workers from outside the EEA.

Most Government ministers would probably agree in private with the recommendations in the Chamber of Commerce’s report but political reality dictates they take a different course of action. Piling on more evidence to support the economic case is next to pointless.

Those trying to persuade the Government to take a more liberal stance on visas would do better by focusing instead on the reasons ministers feel inhibited from doing so. For example, as Sunder Katwala, director of think tank British Future and one of the panellists at the report’s launch, pointed out, there is good evidence that the British public is far less hostile to immigration than many politicians fear, holding pragmatic and nuanced views on the issue.

Finding and focusing on evidence that will persuade ministers that they have less to fear politically in supporting the Chamber of Commerce’s recommendations on visas would be more fruitful than simply arguing the (largely uncontested) economic case for them.

This is an example that shows how having good evidence and a strong argument will not necessarily lead directly to the change you are looking for. A successful communications campaign requires understanding and then addressing your audiences’ underlying concerns.

Whether it is immigration, the Greek crisis, fracking or a host of other contentious issues, dealing with the real inhibitors to change – which in many cases will be emotional or based on misunderstandings – can often be more important than building the evidence-based rational argument.