Monday, 27 October 2014

Get Used to Immigration

Barring an unforeseen turn of events, it looks like immigration is going to be the main issue during next spring's general election. We're just going to have to get used to it. Even if Labour focuses on health and the Tories on the economy, popular debate will inevitably bring the migrant worker lens to bear (pressure on public services, pressure on wages etc). This will be the case even for media-darlings UKIP, whose by-election experience since Eastleigh has taught them to emphasise the migrant angle at every opportunity, even when campaigning for a pro-migration candidate like Duncan Carswell. The call for a referendum on the EU has already been rebranded as "taking our country back". As Left Outside noted, this points to a paradox: "How do you make policy to confront a problem which doesn’t exist. The solutions are already rolled out. The poor can’t marry foreigners. You can’t bring your family over if you’re poor. There is no legal way for asylum seekers to enter the country. EU enlargement is over for a generation and EU immigration numbers are now dictated by the relative strengths of different parts of Western Europe. The better the UK does relative to Southern Europe the more migration we’ll see." (And, he might have added, the more the UK's contribution to the EU budget will increase).

In truth, the debate on immigration is more about stock than flow, i.e. those migrants who are already here, and in particular those suspected of being reluctant to integrate. The focus of concern is on signifiers of cultural incompatibility, such as young men running away to join ISIS, organised sexual abuse and even halal meat. Fifty years ago, the violence, sexual exploitation and funny smelling food of West Indians played a similar role in the popular imagination. As Notting Hill in 1958 showed, very few people are out-and-out racists, simply because seeing the world through such a narrow perspective requires a degree of intellectual commitment that borders on monomania, but a lot of us are unthinking xenophobes.

In Britain, this low-level hum of contempt for foreigners has a long and respectable pedigree, being intimately bound up with the creation of first English and then British identity (biffing the French, building an empire, biffing the Hun). Though the casual bigotry of 50 years ago ("no blacks, no dogs, no Irish") has disappeared, you don't have to dig deep to discover a sullen resentment ("I'm not racist but ..."). For all the bland internationalism of the liberal centre, British popular culture remains wedded to the celebration of native ignorance, from self-defeating football tactics to Jeremy Clarkson winding up Argies. The idea that Britain is under threat of being "swamped" by foreigners who covet our wealth and despise our liberties isn't going to die away any time soon, not least because this attitude is anything but socially marginal.

Of course the world it conjures up is wholly fictitious. According to Ipsos MORI, "the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%.  There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11% (or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups)". It's worth emphasising that these two subsets (immigrants and Blacks/Asians) are not coterminus - i.e. lots of immigrants are white and lots of Blacks and Asians are native-born - however I suspect the 31% and 30% figures largely overlap for most of those polled. After all, it's not easy to determine the migrant status of someone in the street, but it's easy to spot someone with a black or brown skin.

But this is not a real street. As the pollsters found, almost 80% of us think immigration is a problem nationally, but less than 30% think it is a problem in our local area (see page 90 of this longer report). This discrepancy surely reflects our view of the mythical Britain created in ideological discourse. That UKIP should be most popular in areas with the lowest immigration is hardly surprising as these are also the most traditional and "anti-modern" areas. The general concern over immigration appears to reflect a fear that this mythical Britain is disappearing, though we seem broadly comfortable with the outcome in our own locality and even nationally, when push comes to shove - e.g. the Olympics. The more specific concern of UKIP voters appears to reflect the growing gulf between their local experience and that of "modern" Britain, in which immigration stands proxy for broader social change (precarious employment, unaffordable housing, gay marriage etc).

The chief reason for over-estimating, according to the poll respondents themselves (page 24), is the belief that illegal immigrants aren't being counted, however the barking implication of this is that over half of all immigrants (and perhaps even half of all Blacks and Asians) are illegal. This belief presumably helps fuel the periodic panics over failures in migration control and border security, not to mention the enoblement of Andrew Green and Michael Fallon's hyperbolic language. In terms of immigrant composition, we underestimate students and over-estimate asylum-seekers (page 76), possibly because of our different expectations of their likely futures (students to go home, refugees to stay), and we appear to be "less open to immigrants of a different race/ethnic group from the British majority compared with immigrants of the same race/ethnic group" (page 80). Well, whadda ya know.

The persistence of this ignorance frustrates the left not just because it is resistant to mere facts (e.g. that immigration provides net benefits) but because it distracts from the more fundamental causes of low wages, welfare cuts and insufficient housing. This has led some (and not just Blue Labour types) to advocate a strategy of "understanding more and condemning less". The problem with this approach is that understanding quickly comes up short against the wall of ignorance, which can easily lead to the diversion of your frustration elsewhere. John Harris fell into this trap recently when addressing free movement of labour in the EU: "What passes for the modern left tends to be far too blase about all this. Perhaps those who reduce people’s worries and fears to mere bigotry should go back to first principles, and consider whether, in such laissez-faire conditions, free movement has been of most benefit to capital or labour." As Chris Dillow pointed out, immigration is largely a wash in the tussle between capital and labour. The bigger gains to capital have come through the export of jobs, not the import of workers.

Harris also wheeled out the well-worn canard that immigrants increase pressure on public services: "There have also been inevitable problems surrounding how far schools and doctors’ surgeries have been stretched". The stretching has more to do with cuts in public expenditure, secular trends (e.g. ageing) and short-run fluctuations (e.g. the Portakabin bulge in London primary schools) than the impact of immigrants over the last decade. In fact, immigrants tend to be a boon for public services as they reduce per capita demand because they are disproportionately healthier (being of working age) and initially have fewer children and other dependents than the native population. Though this works itself out in time - they settle, have kids (keeping the population up) and grow old - the idea that they have a major short-term impact reflects a confusion between independent economic migrants and needy refugees.

Harris exhibits the limitations of the understanding strategy when he starts to sound like a rightwing opinion-monger from central casting: "There again, do the shrill voices accusing them of pandering to prejudice have any convincing stance of their own? Or is the fashionable metropolitan option still to cast aspersions on millions of people, and then look the other way?" When you are reduced to caricaturing fashionable metropolitan opinion in the Guardian, you're clearly on a hiding to nothing. To be fair to Harris, I don't have a cunning plan either, beyond patient dialogue, but I do think it is important not to subscribe to a counsel of despair that perhaps springs from a contempt for the intellectual capability of the working class. I also think it is equally important to call out bigotry when you find it. Remember, this is about stock not flow. "No Romanians, no benefit tourism" can quickly morph into "no Muslims, no foreign jabber".


  1. I am surprised that you can post something on immigration and get no comments. I think it reflects well on the readers of this blog. At the risk of letting the side down I comment on.

    I assume that the Tories are so desperate to win the by-election in Rochester and Strood against UKIP that they have stepped up the rhetoric on immigration hence various pronouncements from Mr Cameron and Mr Fallon et al. If this is a correct analysis then they should immediately back track after November 20th even if they lose and head for the centre ground for the general election. Lord Ashcroft notes in his latest polling that controlling immigration comes in third place after the NHS and the Economy in the list of peoples concerns. I fear that a move to the centre would be too much even for someone as mentally supple as Lynton Crosby. In short I think you are correct and we will have to suffer months of nonsense on immigration.

    What is disappointing is that no one on the Left is aggressively asserting that with a much stronger economy any concerns with immigration would be subdued. It's possible that someone like John Harris or Owen Jones is making these points, but their output is so prolific I can't keep up with all of it.

    Power cuts some time in January or February 2015 might be the only thing to quell the immigration debate. This would require the jet stream to get stuck providing a sustained arctic flow and possibly some disruption in Russia to threaten European gas supplies. Tight generating capacity puts us at the mercy of events. It's hard to wish for such a thing as unnecessary deaths would surely result.

    1. Knowing the media, if the relentless immigration agenda continues, power cuts would no doubt get blamed on extra strain put on the system by our relentlessly increasing population and provide more evidence that the country is 'full'.
      What amazes me with the John Harris line, as well as the tough-talk from the Tories, is that they don't seem to realise just how counter-productive it is. The more immigration and the EU are raised as issues, the more people who have no problem with them in their own experience are encouraged to believe that they must be a disaster for the country at large, and UKIP benefit.
      Unfortunately, even if sane people deny that immigration is a burden, I think it's far too late to turn the supertanker of opinion round now. By 2018 I'm anticipating an exit from the EU followed by border controls that discriminate heavily against the poor.

    2. Herbie Kills Children31 October 2014 at 10:32

      Maybe people don't post when they find little disagreement with the post?

      As for the economy growing strongly, this is on the back of the biggest fall in real wages in generations, on top of massive cuts to public services and the marginal being more marginalised. Not the perfect environment for cuddly liberalism to flourish.

    3. What would be the best way to refute someone who says "we should have no benefits at all like China, whose economy is booming"?

    4. Herbie Kills Children31 October 2014 at 18:51

      I don't think you can get too sophisticated with people who think on that level, so ask them,

      "Where would you rather live?"?

    5. George,

      China's economy is booming because of exports, largely to countries that have a more developed welfare state (even the US is better than China in this regard). Their problem is a lack of domestic consumer demand, which is the result of workers having to save so much of their wages for health care, pensions and housing.

      If we in the UK cut all benefits, we would trigger a similar increase in precautionary savings, which would in turn depress aggregate demand. Our problem is that the consumer market on Mars isn't yet sufficiently developed to allow us to export the problem.

      This glut of savings is one of the factors contributing not only to trade imbalances but to low interest rates as China's savings are recycled into "safer" foreign investments. This in turn destabilises the international financial market as capital is attracted to risky assets in the hunt for a decent return.

      The China model only works because we don't follow it.

    6. Herbie Kills Children1 November 2014 at 09:18


      You are correct to throw light on the uneven development angle, also because China was starting from a low base there was more potential 'growth'. Of course if we go down the road of learning lessons from China it would be mistaken to believe their strong economic performance is simply down to lack of benefits, or even simply exports. We should ask the question why China? Why has India not been as successful for example? Should we adopt an authoritative state that centrally controls the economy?

      I also take issue with you locating the problem as one of aggregate demand. This slavishly plays into the logic of capitalism, production for productions sake and all that Keynesian bullshit.

    7. Herbie,

      A key difference between China and India is timing. The former started to "liberalise" its economy in the late 70s, while the latter didn't start until the early 90s. India has also pursued a more cautious programme of privatisation, largely due to political constraints. It's by no means the whole story, but a major reason why China became the Asian economic "powerhouse" is that it started in advance of the regional competition.

      Aggregate demand is independent of capitalist logic and Keynesianism. It simply refers to the portion of national income (and liquidated wealth) that is directed to current consumption versus the portion dedicated to saving (i.e. future consumption). It does not require production for production's sake - Keynes's parable about banknotes in bottles is a policy choice not an inescapable outcome.

    8. Herbie Kills Children1 November 2014 at 18:54

      I fundamentally disagree that aggregate demand is independent of capitalism, this would be like saying wages are independent of capitalism! But you are correct that it doesn't necessarily equate to production for productions sake, except when you think it can get you out of a crisis!

      It plays into the logic of capitalism because the solution to a problem is simply to consume something. But that is a problem particular to capitalism, just as overproduction seems an absurdity in all history before capitalism (Communist Manifesto).

      Off on my hols now!

  2. This morning's reports of the Mayor of Calais's appearance before the Commons' Home Affairs Select Committee have focused on her claim that our benefits system is a "magnet" for asylum-seekers. She has been banging the same drum for years, having used the issue domestically to beat the left (Calais was a former Communist stronghold) and keep the FN at bay (she is a member of the centre-right UMP). However, her stance is more about berating perifidous Albion than attacking immigrants per se, not least because her parents were Armenian and Polish immigrants to France.

    The UK's "generous" benefits of £36 a week are in line with state support for asylum-seekers elsewhere in the EU, however other countries (e.g. France) often don't allow asylum-seekers to work during their application (which can take a couple of years), and they tend to have national ID card schemes that make day-to-day life tougher. The real attraction of the UK for asylum-seekers, and economic migrants more generally, is the prospect of jobs and less state hassle this side of Le Manche. It's also worth noting that many of those jobs will be in the black economy - i.e. easier to get, cash in hand. The UK's black economy is huge, which is partly why our GDP (and EU budget contributions) have recently been increased.

    A "rational" UK immigration policy (assuming the goal was to reduce flow) would therefore focus not on reducing benefits or tightening border controls but on clamping down on the black economy and preventing asylum-seekers from working (which would increase public expenditure because so many of them are not a burden on the state today). Though the last Labour government made some moves towards the latter - e.g. requiring that employers formally check visa and right-to-work status at hire - the state has been wary of taking any steps that might hinder our much-vaunted flexible labour market, while clamping down on the black economy would mean investing in a lot more anti-tax evasion resources. Don't hold your breath.

    The rich irony of the press coverage is that it is the British media who have done most to broadcast the idea that the UK is a soft touch for migrants, aided and abetted by politicians claiming that we are a land of opportunity, creating jobs hand over fist. If you don't want to be a magnet for migrants, just pipe down.

  3. You can't say I don't the blog now. Unfortunately I am not smart enough to add to the point or argue against it. One day.


  4. I can't even string a sentence together clearly...