On Monday Douglas Murray blogged that I personify the ‘craziness’ of the British immigration debate. By criticising the views of both a Ukip councillor and a Labour pollster I was apparently guilty of a doublethink, as if there were no political space between open borders and ‘send the lot back’.

But there’s nothing contradictory about opposing both those on the hard right who favour the mass deportation of anyone who wasn’t born here and those on the liberal left who want to shut down the immigration debate altogether. We need an immigration policy which works for Britain, one which delivers us economic benefits while addressing longstanding public concerns about the capacity of British society to absorb so many new arrivals. Mainstream politicians are not going to take the public with them unless we tackle extreme views on both sides.

The left’s problem is that they have always regarded the economic case for open borders as unimpeachably sound. This has led to the deeply ingrained assumption that anyone who doesn’t share their views must be badly informed (or ‘bigoted’ when the mics are thought to be off). Until very recently few in the Labour Party had bothered to consider non-economic factors such as community cohesion, or the opportunity costs – what would have happened to wages in non-tradable jobs like care if employers had been unable to fill all those vacancies in the mid-2000s? And the appeal to stats might have greater credibility with the public if Labour hadn’t got the big number so wrong on the A8 countries.

By contrast, the right’s problem is an obsession on absolute numbers, along with our tendency to lump immigrants together as a single monolithic bloc. This attitude can create the wrong policy incentives. I have long argued, for instance, that international students should be excluded from the headline figures on net migration as at present there is too great a temptation for governments to bear down on student visas at a time when we should be growing our share of the global higher education market. A narrow focus on ‘bringing down the numbers’ also helps us avoid the more complex difficult question of how we improve integration among existing immigrant communities. Where that question does come up too often Conservatives assume that it is enough simply to denounce multiculturalism.

To move the debate forward we need to get more comfortable with talking about culture. As an immigrant myself I know what matters to the British people is not your ethnic origin but whether you share their values. My own constituency is ninety percent white and with a name like mine I was never going to convince the voters of Stratford-on-Avon that my ancestors fought the Normans at the Battle of Hastings (they may well have fought them at the gates of Jerusalem, but that’s another story). What mattered to them was not the colour of my skin but whether I was on their side.

Responsible politicians need to listen carefully to what the public are saying on immigration, because the ‘send the lot back’ brigade only get a hearing when it seems as though the mainstream parties are not listening.

Tags: Immigration, UKIP