Tag Archives: immigration policy

Immigration remains the top issue in British politics

As the left chatters away about the Labour leadership contest, and the economic and diplomatic implications of a Jeremy Corbyn leadership, the real stuff of politics in Britain goes on. And there is no doubting the top issue: immigration.

Immigration has, as in many developed countries, become a lightning-rod issue for general discontent. Grumpy conservatives, especially those of lower middle class and working class standing and white origin, have decided that it is at the seat of most ills. They see a world changing around them, with middle ranking jobs disappearing, house prices and rents escalating beyond reach,  public services under stress, and strange terrorist threats at home and on holiday beaches. The racist attitudes that could be taken for granted in my youth linger too, albeit in “I’m not racist but…” form. “We’re full up” is what people tell each other, and this all seems to be plain common sense. That immigration continues is simply evidence that Britain’s ruling elite is not up to the job.

Meanwhile a refugee crisis strikes Europe. The utter collapse of once-stable Syria is the most important cause. But the dire situation in Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and even Nigeria all contribute to numbers of escapees who are prepared to risk their lives in pursuit of something better. This keeps the flow of desperate people in the news, and stokes up a sense of threat. Sadly, instead of, or perhaps alongside, compassion, many people seem to think “I don’t want these people turning up in my street”. And now net migration to the UK is at record – something that has little to do with the refugee crisis, and much more to do with the relative success of the British economy. A number of right-wing newspapers are happy to keep the pot boiling, drawing connections where there aren’t any and generally playing on a sense of crisis and discontent. It is difficult not to see this as a malign intervention by media oligarchs with an agenda of their own: but this stuff clearly sells newspapers.

Mainstream politicians know full well that how firmly held these views are amongst the public at large, and feel obliged by the process of democracy to do some something. The trouble is that doing anything substantive is likely to damage other things that the public hold dear – such as the economy or public services.

Ordinarily a bit tokenism, followed by some ducking an weaving would be all that is called for. A prosperous growing economy would help distract people, and, in the classic public way, many people don’t really want to go further than have a good whinge.

But behind all this is an issue of real importance: Britain’s membership of the European Union. And behind that lurks another issue: whether or not the United Kingdom survives, or whether the kingdoms of England and Scotland go their separate ways. The government is committed to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2016 or 2017. Superficially things are going quite well for those that want Britain to stay in the EU. The polls that once showed solid majorities for exit have now switched the other way.

But Britain’s exit campaigners are a determined bunch. For many it is the most important issue in current politics; for them there is no ill that does not have Britain’s membership of the EU at its heart. It plays the same role as Communism did in my youth: something that provides unity and coherence to an otherwise disparate movement. Large parts of the Conservative Party think this way, perhaps most of its grassroots membership; and they are being harried by the insurgent Ukip. They know that support for the EU is lukewarm, and there is one issue that could turn it: immigration.

Free movement of people lies at the heart of the EU treaties, something that many Britons have taken advantage of with alacrity. Not that that affects the public debate: Britons abroad are benign “expats”, while those coming to this country from other places are malign “migrants”. Many other EU citizens are as sceptical about free movement as Britons are, but securing a treaty change, even if desirable, is not feasible in the next two years. Treaty changes require ratification by all member states, a process that often requires a referendum. Each treaty change has become more difficult than the last; there is now no prospect of securing this. And without treaty change the main features of free movement will remain in place – something that is thoroughly good for the EU economies, including Britain’s, but of no help to those who want to present a “reformed” EU to the electorate.

And so the antis are keeping immigration up on the agenda. The refugee crisis helps: even though this has no bearing on Britain’s membership question, it serves to raise public unease. And slowly but surely the anti-EU campaigners are drawing a connection between EU membership and high immigration. The most conspicuous recent example came from the Home Secretary, Theresa May, no less. She suggested that EU migration be limited to those already with jobs to move too. This is half-baked, but that’s not the point. It is something an EU renegotiation cannot deliver, and this will help stoke discontent.

But leaving the EU would be a disaster for Britain. It would mire the country’s political leadership in many years of painful negotiation, and would give the Scottish independence movement a sound reason to rerun the independence referendum, and an excellent reason for Scots voters to vote for independence. Regardless of whether the Britain would be better off or not outside the EU in the long run, years of negotiation and uncertainty will damage investment, and no doubt slow down other areas of economic and political reform.

So what to do? Moderate Conservatives, led by the Prime Minister David Cameron, are trying to accommodate the anti-immigration movement, both in tightening rules, and in negotiations with the EU. This simply looks ineffectual – as well as damaging as the country’s demographic crisis slowly begins to bight, as well as the need for the country’s education sector to bring in foreign, fee-paying customers.

Labour have tried to find a middle ground too; this is an issue that bothers its working class core vote, now being picked off by Ukip. It has declared that its laissez-faire approach in the 2000s was a mistake. But it wasn’t, and this is intellectually dishonest. Amid such contortions it is difficult to sound convincing.

Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, also tried to stake a middle ground. He wanted to combine clear and well-enforced rules on migration with a generally liberal attitude. The public wasn’t listening, though, and it sounded too much like liberal fence-sitting.

Which leaves liberals, left and right, in a bit of a bind. For now standing up for the principles of free movement and diversity is the only honest thing to do. But alongside the fictional problems that flow from this are quite a few genuine ones, that need real solutions. And anti-immigrant feeling is a sign of a deeper discontent, which liberals must address.

I think it has a lot to do with the hollowing out of society, as big institutions, from public ones like the NHS, to national commercial chains, take control. This provides the sort of rootless milieu in which outsiders seem much more of a threat to people’s security. It allows organisations that thrive on cheap, disempowered labour, often recruited abroad, to thrive.

But reversing that trend is a huge task. it means looking again at the standard language of economic growth and productivity. It is a cause that this blogger is increasingly devoting himself to.

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David Cameron pitches for the political centre on immigration and EU. How depressing

The Conservative leader and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s grasp of the dark political arts is not gone. Last Friday he gave a long-awaited speech setting out his proposals on managing immigration from other EU countries better. It received generally favourable coverage. And, before anybody had a chance to think through what he had said, the story was muscled out by a series of announcements about public spending commitments, in advance of tomorrow’s Autumn Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If this goes according to plan, Mr Cameron has redefined the political centre ground at a stroke. Will he succeed?

In the preceding weeks, not coincidentally while the Conservatives were trying to fight off a by-lection challenge from Ukip, various suggestions had been floated about what the speech might say. The most eye-catching was some sort of quota system for accepting intra-EU migrants. This drew much criticism from other EU leaders. In the event this idea was dropped. Instead Mr Cameron proposed to limit their access to benefits and tax credits, including those for both those in work, and those out of work. Migrants would not be entitled to these benefits unless they had been resident for a full four years.

In terms of pure politics this was astute. More moderate commentators were relieved that the quota idea, and its immediate confrontation with other EU leaders, was buried. Limiting access to benefits, on the other hand, sounds a bit like what the opposition Labour Party, and even the Liberal Democrat coalition partners, were suggesting. But the time limit and scope was much greater than anything these parties proposed – pleasing the more hawkish commentators, especially in the right-wing press, who are the main attack-dogs in British politics. Sensibly he left the matter of access to free health services under the NHS untouched. Many older Britons have retired to Spain, where they get access to that country’s health services for free; indeed Britain seems to be exporting oldsters almost as fast as it importing youngsters – something the government will not wish to discourage.

And so Mr Cameron will try to present himself as the voice of sweet reason and moderation as the General Election approaches. On the one hand we have the liberals and the left, who are ignoring the British public’s anxieties over immigration. On the other we have the swivel-eyed loons of the Ukip, who demand must more drastic measures, including departure from the EU, which would do severe harm to the country’s economic prospects. Mr Cameron does the faintly plaintive, sweet moderation act pretty well. He praised the contribution of immigrants in his speech, and simply suggested that the country had been having a little too much of a good thing.

And the bulk of the British public may well agree. Mr Cameron’s suggestion that we renegotiate our EU treaties and put the result to an in-out referendum sounded similarly sensible and centrist. That the political centre seems to be drifting so far towards muddled populism might alarm liberals like me, but this is reality.

But there are problems. The most immediate is whether his own fractious Conservative Party will buy it. Many party workers, and a lot of MPs, actually agree with Ukip about immigration and the EU. Mr Cameron’s policy may sound like a cop out to them. If they start to get  vocal, the Tories will look divided, and their credibility will fade. There were mutterings over the weekend, but we will have to wait and see on that. His party did allow Mr Cameron a free hand before the 2010 to define it as more moderate than it really was. If they have any sense they will do so this time. If the British public has any sense they won’t fall for it.

The political class are obsessed with the General Election due in May 2015. Any dates after this only matter in terms of manoeuvres designed to secure an advantage at that point. And in that light, divisions within the Tory party are Mr Cameron’s main threat on the issue. It is looking beyond that date that the real un-wisdom of Mr Cameron’s stance starts to emerge.

The first point is that it still leaves a problem with the EU renegotiation. While there is some scope to limit access to benefits under current EU treaties (by moving towards a contributory principle), changes of this nature will apparently need treaty changes. Mr Cameron had calculated that the EU would need treaty changes anyway to secure the struggling Eurozone – so adding in a few goodies for his benefit would not be too onerous. But the EU’s leaders are heading in a different direction. With anti-EU populists on the rise across the continent, leaders want to avoid any treaty change, since these are likely to be held hostage to referendum results. Unfortunately voting No to a treaty change has not proved fatal to any EU country so far – it has simply improved negotiating leverage. Going through this process just to save Mr Cameron’s bacon may well be too much. This takes the country a further step towards the EU exit, something that Mr Cameron seems to want to avoid.

The second point is that this plan does not actually address any major economic stress point. Access to Britain’s benefit system does not seem to be a major draw for intra-EU migrants – though it may be a stronger incentive for migrants from outside the EU. The British public will not notice a diminution of EU migrant numbers. The policy is designed to address tabloid exaggerations, not reality. The tabloids will simply move on to some other nonsense. All that pain for no real gain.

Still practical solutions to the country’s problems count for little in the current political debate. The populist right blame the EU and immigrants for the country’s problems. The left blames some combination of bankers, capitalists, greedy rich people or deluded neoliberals. We may suspect that our problems lie deeper – with demographics, globalisation and the development of technology. We may also suspect that the proffered solutions of left and right will make things worse not better. But no politician, campaign group or tabloid journalist seems to care. That is the real scandal of Britain’s political class.

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Immigration and Britain: there is not one problem and there is not one solution

Immigration is now the top issue in British politics, though laughably some nativists still claim that politicians refuse to talk about it. Polls show that it has been one of the biggest issues of public concern for many years – indeed, some suggest that the level of concern is independent of actual levels of immigration. Now that the economy is dropping as a political issue, in spite of Labour’s attempt to stoke up anxiety, immigration is challenged only by the NHS in public concern. But to what extent is the public worry about immigration a fantasy, a displacement of anxiety about other changes in our society, and how much does it reflect real stress?

The answer to that matters, or it should. Let us put to one side the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s reason for wanting to limit freedom of movement in the EU: that the British people are his boss. In other words he doesn’t care whether the fear is based on substance, he just listens to what people tell him. We can imagine Winston Churchill in 1940 consulting opinion polls as to whether to sue for peace with Hitler or fight on alone. Leaders should lead, not follow. If the anxiety over immigration is fantasy, our politicians should publicly challenge it; if it is based on real stress, steps should be taken to manage that stress.

Unfortunately the quality of debate is very poor. The anti camp are more interested in fanning the flames than examining the real issues, for example by stoking fears that the country will be “swamped”. And yet the migration liberals seem to talk past them and stick to generalities: that migration is generally a good thing in a modern society. And even some who attempt to see both sides, like this article from John Harris in the Guardian, are often unsatisfactory. In spite of the article’s encouraging title “Don’t dismiss public fears about migration as mere bigotry” it turns out that it is largely based on the author’s experience in the East Anglian town of Wisbech, which does little to explain feelings elsewhere in the country. And he swallows at face value Labour’s apology over letting in EU migrants from new members in the early 2000s: this is far from a self-evident policy mistake, even in hindsight.

A welcome breath of fresh air is this article from this week’s Economist. This comes from an unmistakably liberal standpoint, but in the best traditions of that newspaper, it is a balanced survey of the evidence – so much better than that paper’s overage of British educational policy. This brings out how much anti-immigration feeling is a sort of displacement of other anxieties, personal and societal, stoked up by the country’s “raucous” press. A telling fact is that anti-immigrant feeling is often highest in communities relatively unaffected by immigration, such as the site of Ukip’s recent landslide by election victory, Clacton.

But there are real pressures too. The starkest are in East Anglian and Lincolnshire agricultural communities (like Wisbech). Here unscrupulous gangmasters ship in thousands of workers form abroad to work in the fields for a pittance. They destroy job prospects for the less-skilled locals; crammed into to houses in ordinary residential areas they overload local services and undermine neighbourliness. They are a lawless other, a truly ugly phenomenon, with the workers themselves as much victims as the blighted communities. Then there are northern and midland towns where Pakistani and other Asian communities have not integrated. In Birmingham conservative Muslims have tried to take over state schools to run them on a decidedly illiberal principles. Confused youngsters may be radicalised and converted to terrorist activities. Such British icons as poppy day, to commemorate the sacrifices of the armed forces, may be viewed with hostility. And there are many other such problems: Somali children failing to take to British education; Albanian and Kosovar crime syndicates; rich foreigners buying up London luxury flats; and so on.

But what is so striking is how diverse these problems are. Each of the solutions advocated by anti-immigrants would only deal with a small part of the problem. Leave the EU? Well that might help with the EU agricultural workers in East Anglia – but there would also be collateral damage to the farming industry. It wouldn’t help with second and third generation Pakistani residents. A points system for immigrants so that only those with needed skills or money can come in? We already have this for non-EU migrants, and it is far from clear that the collateral damage to businesses and universities is worth any benefits. And it doesn’t help with those London flats.

Surely what is needed is not so much these drastic, strategic national solutions, but a number tactical, local solutions – and some international ones too. We need to crack down on the gangmasters and the sort of exploitation that they perpetrate; that does not require EU treaty changes. We need better engagement with and among longer-standing immigrant communities – including better teaching about Islam in our schools. This may mean bypassing the paternalistic “community leaders” in many cases. Serious action is needed to root out prejudice in our police forces. The paternalistic Labour one-party states that predominate in so many of the country’s urban local authorities needs to be replaced by something more pluralist and democratic. And so it goes on.

But liberals must also confront two strategic problems: housing and the welfare state. A common complaint is that the number of immigrants is putting pressure on limited housing resources, which is depriving poorer people (of all races, it might be added) of access to decent housing. Immigration is by no means the only reason why housing is under pressure – but there must be some substance to this. An obvious answer is to build more houses – but that will often mean blotting out nice bits of green countryside, especially in urban greenbelts. My personal view is that the rising population is driven by demographics – younger immigrants are being sucked in as older people leave the workforce to retire. As such limiting numbers of immigrants will create worse pressures elsewhere. So we badly need a decent housing strategy. But I also think that a lot of the pressure on green land comes from our dysfunctional private sector developers, exploiting English fantasies of the sort of home they want to make quick profits. In fact dense, urban housing is much more sustainable in the long-term, even if it is expensive in the short term. Also it would be good to revive local economies that are currently weak, for example in many northern cities, and where housing pressure is much lower. But some loss of greenbelt is inevitable. This isn’t easy, but we need to put more of the political class’s creative energies into this, learning from past failures.

Welfare is more awkward. Unlike most of our European neighbours, Britain does not operate insurance-based welfare. We run according a more socialist ideal based on need. This is exemplified best by the NHS – but similar thinking runs through the whole system. With an insurance system, even if state-run, it is much easier to control access, and reduce access to recent immigrants. We don’t really know how much our open access to welfare encourages poorer migrants. But it is the poorer migrants that create most of the difficult issues. There may be much mythology in the idea of welfare tourism – but there is also plenty of anecdotal evidence that our welfare system attracts migrants to Britain rather than France, say. Should we start to move towards the insurance model? This is what Labour are suggesting by re-establishing a “contributory principle”. I have to say that I worry about this. It’s a neat way to keep new, unskilled migrants away without burdensome immigration systems – but I suspect there would be a lot of collateral damage to longer-term residents. We have taken our welfare state in that direction for a reason – and it is an attractive idea. There may be other reasons to move towards and insurance model (which, after all was the idea of the original Beveridge system) in times when tax revenues do not flow so freely. I don’t have a view on this – but like housing it needs to be a central area of political discourse.

And my conclusion? High levels of immigration are a fact of life for Britain. Crude regulation, or drastic measures like leaving the EU, will create more problems than they solve. But there are some real pressures that our political class should address. And there are many problems, not one.

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