How immigration is dominating the EU debate - allowing Vote Leave to succeed

We've complained with long and wearisome repetitiveness about just how long and wearisomely repetitive the EU referendum campaign has been. Yet now, suddenly, just as fatigue has crept in, it's getting feverishly intense as we're sucked in by the increasingly heated, and personal arguments. When John Major gets vicious, it's like the Vicar of Dibley pulling out a flick knife - all the more compelling for its unexpectedness and for the realisation of the growing sense of panic that drives him, and the rest of the Tory hierarchy into highly watchable civil war, albeit one that affects all of us.

So, in such an atmosphere, the introduction of the topic of immigration immediately sets off alarm bells and the possibility of dog whistles. In amongst such tinnitus many assume that any debate that centres around immigration will, sooner or later, be prefixed with the phrase 'I'm not racist but...'

Immigration is at the core of the debate in the campaign and on social platforms, especially as polls have shown in recent days, and is the single most important topic pushing the UK towards Brexit. Yet a close look at the social data shows that the debate is less openly xenophobic than you might think (or at least delivered with more subtlety than expected).

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The #Remain camp are finding themselves going into battle without coherent arguments, and are losing the online debates as a result.

Social media analysis company Impact Social looked at over 73,000 social media posts (including forums and comments on open news sites) over the past week, revealing in the first instance that the sentiment around immigration is overwhelmingly against.

At 48% the negative reaction to the term is double that of those posting comments in favour (at 24% for those of you struggling with the maths). The neutrality of the remainder rather belies the fact that, for most people on social media, when you have an opinion about immigration, the rest of us won't die wondering what it might be. Strong opinions regularly delivered.

Yet the conversations online, thankfully, rarely descend into racism, or at least people disguise it well if that's their intention - most often claiming there was some form of blatant discrimination against British people (their definition of which goes largely unexplained). Yet that's as low as it gets - and that's more high falutin' than some of the campaign leaders seem to manage.

Rather than attacking immigrants in that way, the research showed #Leave campaigners have driven the debate into one about the alleged outcomes of 'high levels' of people coming here - overwhelming our NHS, taking our houses and our jobs. While these tend to be opinions offered as facts, they resonate.

The one fact that did intrude rather rudely on the #Leave campaign was that their beloved Australian points system as a barrier to mass immigration actually led to higher numbers, with 19% of posts referencing #Remain recognising that fly in the ointment, (the skill bar to being an Aussie being a low one, it seems). Yet even then, even the notion of control over immigration was attractive to many.

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The #Remain camp seem to be landing few punches - while the accusations of lies and scaremongering are regular, few are making coherent arguments about the benefits of immigration (nine percent making positive noises about the effect on the economy) and while they accused #Leave campaigners of discrimination, there was little coherent counter argument.

There is no attempt to deconstruct the debate about the free movement of labour around the EU, an integral part of the whole institution, or the migration of people from outside Europe. Nor is there any attempt to understand the issues particular to the UK - an economy that is performing reasonably well, English as a second language for many, and the lure driven by our own soft power and cultural diplomacy efforts. There's barely a mention that free movement of labour also helps the 1.2 million Brits living in the EU.

For the #Remainers, immigration is entirely a backfoot issue, the conversation driven by the negativity of their opposition. They ought to have been prepared - but David Cameron's fixation on net immigration of 'tens of thousands' painted him into a rather difficult corner. After all, in recent times, it's difficult to remember when such criticisms haven't been the case - even when there has been net zero immigration, the complaint was that the numbers were too high, yet no alternative argument has been put together by #Remain. Or at least when it was, it was by Tim Farron and Jeremy Corbyn and that media narrative is of Tory disharmony, so they simply don't get heard.

Whether driven by invisibility, complacency, incoherence or even by the possibility that there is no argument to be made, the noise is outrage at 'lies' and complaints about media bias (well, the Mail and the Telegraph at least). A level of sophistication that would make sixth form debaters look ashamed.

And that is why we're standing by the door marked Exit.

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