Two weeks into the new year, it is clear that immigration will stay at the heart of political debate. Economic downturns tend to heighten concerns about migrants competing for jobs and depressing wages, and spending cuts tend to sharpen resentment over migrants claiming benefits or adding to pressure on public services. Both these issues were covered by an important new report published on Tuesday by the Migration Advisory Committee.

Despite the heated debate, the differences between the political parties aren’t actually as sharp as they can appear. They are competing for the new centre ground, which is roughly, “pro-immigration but less of it”: which acknowledges that even if immigration is good for Britain overall, it isn’t good in every respect, or good for everyone – and recognises that without a shift in public attitudes, towards seeing migrants as less of a threat, or a burden, it is difficult for any politician to make the case for immigration in more than grudging terms.

There are however big differences in tactics, and to some extent on policy. Labour are staying quiet on immigration, aware of the deep resentment the public feels on its record. And if there is a list of issues where the Liberal Democrats are looking to differentiate themselves from their coalition partners, immigration isn’t on it. By contrast, the Conservative leadership see immigration as a useful issue in handling those on the right of the party, especially those who are chafing at life in coalition.

The difficulty for the Conservatives is that while their headline policy objective, of reducing immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’, is overwhelmingly popular, there is much less support for the detailed policies they are adopting in pursuit of it; they are also starting to realise the extent to which it cuts across their overriding priorities, of tackling the deficit and helping the economy return to growth. They are in the perverse position of targeting work and study visas simply because these are the easiest areas to control, rather than because economic arguments or public opinion tell in favour of doing so.

The difficulty for Labour is different, but equally intractable. Leaving aside the issue of their “toxic” legacy on immigration, one assumes they would – within the shared parameters of the new centre ground of “pro-immigration but less of it” – favour more positive policies on overseas students and working migrants, place less emphasis on excluding all bar the richest migrants, and generally adopt a less strident and negative tone on the issue.

But this week’s media coverage is a reminder of why, even forgetting about Labour’s legacy, it is hard for any politician to take a positive line on immigration in the current climate. Among the mass of evidence published by the MAC, are findings which should in theory assuage some of people’s deepest concerns: about migrants being a burden on public services (recent migrants in particular use them far less than residents), or being involved in crime (if anything, immigration might slightly reduce it). And yet the coverage of the reports focuses overwhelmingly on the negative: that for the first time ever, a government-sanctioned report finds a link between immigration and unemployment – that “an extra 100 non-EU migrants are initially associated with 23 fewer native people employed”. There are important caveats to this finding, and the report certainly doesn’t prove that reducing immigration to the tens of thousands will make a significant contribution to reducing unemployment, let alone be the silver bullet which many believe it is. But that is the main thing most people will take away from its publication.

Perhaps this isn’t all that surprising: people don’t necessarily arrive at their beliefs on an issue like immigration on the basis of statistics, so why should we expect them to change those beliefs on the basis of new statistics – but of course they will tend to seize on something which reinforces views they already deeply hold. This is neither new, nor unique to immigration. It is, however, a challenge for all those who believe in evidence-based policymaking, as well as for those who would like to see the national debate on immigration move back towards the confident language of the value of diversity and global networks, rather than the negative language of insularity and fear.

Matt Cavanagh is associate director at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cav_

Tags: Immigration, Ippr, Matt Cavanagh, Migration Advisory Committee