Lower immigration means paying more for public services

“A sensible politcal debate” is surely an oxymoron. Politics is a battle of personal ambitions in which popular prejudices provide the most useable ammunition. If you catch two politicians having a sensible debate, it is away from public attention, about an issue with no real salience. Immigration is an issue of high political salience – and always has been, so we shouldn’t wonder that so little of what is said by politicians makes any sense in the round. But in the end effective policy needs to be based on reality, and a sensible debate is needed to tease that out. Immigration is a case in point.

Immigration is currently moving up the political agenda. This is in spite of the fact that the leaders of none of the major political parties would rather talk about other things, and opinion polling shows that it is relatively low on the list of public concerns. That is because a group of conservative politicians see it as an opportunity to create mischief and further their political careers. The proximate cause are statistics that show immigration at record levels – though these statistics are highly unreliable as data collection is weak. The numbers have been driven up Ukrainian and Hong Kong refugees, the need for universities (and the country at large) to extract money from foreign students, and widespread labour shortages. Each of these causes seems to be understood by most of the public. So what’s the fuss?

There seem to be two main, mutually supporting strands raised by conservative politicians (with Labour leaders happy to echo them in their bid to show their conservative side): cultural and economic. Immigrants are usually culturally distinct (we can argue whether this is true of Australians…) – with different languages, religions and customs, and often maintain distinct communities. This is blamed for corroding traditional British culture. There is more than a tinge of racism here, though it is notable that many of the the leading public conservatives are themselves from ethnic minorities, and these ideas resonate with settled ethnic minority communities. There is plenty of irony here. Immigrants are keeping the churches full and often have conservative social values. One leading conservative politician claimed that immigration was leading to the declining number of people professing to be Christian, when the opposite is true. Of course this person (Nigel Farage) was seeking to exploit the trope that Western countries were being taken over by Muslims. It is easy for cosmopolitan liberals to laugh at all this, so many are the inconsistencies, but the message resonates well with older and less-educated people. There is a real conflict here between the cosmopolitans, typical of larger and more successful cities, and nativists, typical of more rural areas (though my own rural abode of Sussex is pretty cosmopolitan, it needs to be said) and smaller towns. If you take the Brexit referendum as an indictor of how the two outlooks divide (and it is more complicated than that) – then the country is split fairly much 50/50. It currently helps that, apart from the Ukrainains perhaps, the bulk of existing migrants tack onto communities that are already well established here – Indian, Chinese and Nigerian in particular.

Because of the clash of cultural attitudes, and the need to draw support from both sides, perhaps, most politicians choose to make their main arguments on immigration in terms of economics. It is said that excessive immigration is causing public services to be overstretched, exacerbating housing shortages pushing up property and rental costs, and pushing natives out of decent jobs, or at least pushing the level of pay down. The public services argument is the least serious. Public services are often amongst the most dependent on immigrant labour, and would be under even more strain if immigration was reduced. But a local influx can cause problems, and the system can be slower than it should be to adapt.

The argument on housing is more convincing. Pretty much everybody agrees that the supply of housing is failing to keep up with supply – though new housing developments seem to be popping up everywhere I travel to. After that vested interests take over, and it is very hard to get an objective take on things. One group of people blames restrictive planning laws which stop new homes being built, especially on rural and green belt land. The other side says that this would simply give developers carte-blanche to build lots of poor quality houses in ecologically vulnerable beauty spots, together with some high-end properties to act as stores of financial value for footloose foreigners. Clearly high levels of immigration make the problem worse – but the middle ground between developers’ search for an easy profit and nimbies trying to protect the value of their existing properties is largely uninhabited – and draws little serious, well-funded research. Economists tend to side unthinkingly with the developer lobby. Politicians may talk as if they are in the middle ground, but lack well thought-out policies that might do any good, and I’m practice end up at one of the extremes. Arguments over immigration just add grist to the mill. It is very hard to understand the implications of immigration strategies for housing without having a clearer idea of about housing strategy. But it clearly doesn’t help.

What about immigration and jobs? Recently changes as a result of Brexit caused a shortage of lorry drivers. Their pay shot up as a result; training schemes were upgraded, and more locals are now taking up the work. This is exactly how conservatives arguing for lower immigration say things should work. Using immigrant labour is an easy shortcut – but we would be better off we raised pay and brought more locals in to do the jobs. This is the vision conjured up by the Tory former leader Boris Johnson at the last election. But there’s a problem. This should mean that public sector wages need to be raised to help draw more people into the workforce. And yet the government wants to do the opposite: to use inflation to reduce real levels of public pay, and use the resulting surplus to fund tax cuts. They do this in the name of reducing inflation – but offer no long term solution to the problem of public sector pay. In fact a rebalancing of the economy in favour lower paid jobs will surely result in a degree of of inflation. It may also require taxes to be raised. The issues are quite complicated here, but a limited supply of labour creates something of a zero-sum game. Raising wages for the lower-paid is going to hurt somewhere.

Politicians sometimes talk about the need to improve training so that more locals can do jobs where we currently need immigrant labour. This clearly won’t work for things like fruit-picking, but is more convincing for doctors, nurses and social care workers. The problem here, as Stephen Bush of the FT points out, is that skilled labour is mobile, and the freshly trained workers will simply gravitate to where the best paid jobs are – which are often not in the UK. It is putting the cart before the horse. As the case with lorry drivers shows, if you fix the pay issue first, training is a much easier problem to solve.

The big, unspoken issue lying behind the fuss, is the country’s demographic development, with retired people taking up an increasing share of the population, while at the same time driving up demand for public services. Immigration is the obvious answer to this problem, though not in the long term, as the immigrants themselves will retire. If immigration is not the answer, then what is? Politicians place hope on increased productivity – but for a number of reasons this will not cut the mustard. The areas where productivity needs to advance to make the sort of impact required – in health care and social care services – seem to be those with the fewest practical proposals. Indeed, health and safety worries tend to push them in the opposite direction. Big investments in hi-tech factories may be a very good idea, but they will make little difference to economic growth overall, and impact the labour market even less.

The idea that the country should limit immigration is a perfectly respectable one. But it has a cost – we must pay more for critical services that are subject to labour shortages. That will involve a rebalancing of the economy and some painful economic adjustments. It would help if more people would talk about what this, exactly, means.

A lot is staked on Ukraine’s counteroffensive

By Viewsridge РOwn work, derivate of Russo-Ukraine Conflict (2014-2021).svg by Rr016Territorial control sources:Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed map / Template:Russo-Ukrainian War detailed relief mapISW, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115506141

I haven’t commented on the Ukraine war since January, when the world was waiting for a new Russian offensive. That has come and gone, and now all the talk is of a Ukrainian offensive. First I want to look at the shape of things on the battlefield. Then I will take a step back and consider the situation strategically, before trying to probe how this war could end.

That Russian offensive turned out to be a damp squib. It was a series of attacks mainly in Donbas, and especially around the town of Bakhmut, the strategic value of which has been much argued over. The Russians made use of “human wave” attacks – a tactic with a long Russian history, but which led to massive casualties. Ukrainian casualties were quite heavy too, especially from relentless artillery fire. I was somehow expecting something more – the whole thing bespeaks of poor quality military leadership – apparently at all levels. What captured a lot of attention was politicking between Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group mercenaries, and the regular military. Mr Prigozhin’s troops did much of the heavy lifting around Bakhmut, using poorly-trained recruits from prisons, and he sought to make political capital out of this. Gradually the Russian effort has fizzled out, as they moved to a more defensive stance, though they still seek to complete the conquest of Bakhmut.

Which leads to the Ukrainian offensive. This is much talked about, including by Russian military commentators. Ukraine has been preparing a number of units for this task, and equipping them with advanced weapons supplied from the West. It is hard to tell what the real game is here. The Ukrainian leadership would clearly like to keep the Russians guessing as to where the blow will fall and when – but that is hard. The talk now is of whether the effort has already started, with some attacks north and south of Bakhmut. There is a game of bluff and double-bluff, and from this distance I can’t tell what is going on.

When it comes, the big question will be how tough and resilient will be the Russian troops on the receiving end. They are poorly trained and led, but their leadership is trying hard to steep them into the tough no-surrender traditions of the historic Russian military. If successful, even poorly-trained men will slow the Ukrainians down. Still, even though he Russian army is large by 21st Century standards, they have a lot of ground to cover, so they must be spread quite thinly. Another imponderable is ammunition supply. The Russian way of war is to use ammunition prolifically – and there are clear shortages. But ammunition supply is a major issue for Ukraine too. The Western powers’ ability to maintain stocks of ammunition for the weapons they are supplying is in question. Probably the reason for the regular waves of Russian missile and drone attacks is to run down Ukraine’s stocks of anti-aircraft munitions – especially since American intelligence leaks indicated that these were running low.

One area that Ukraine has been pressurising its allies on is the supply of advanced fighter aircraft like the American-made F-16 (though these aren’t top of the range weapons in the most advanced arsenals, they will out-perform the Soviet era equipment Ukraine has been using to date). The allies appear reluctant – as these aircraft require substantial logistical support, and any bases would become a natural Russian target that would be hard to move. The Economist points out that Sweden’s Viggen aircraft would be much more appropriate, as it doesn’t need big bases – but there aren’t enough of these around. A significant force of F-16s would undoubtedly give Ukraine more options, however, but they clearly cannot arrive before their offensive gets under way.

Which brings me to strategy. There is something rather curious about this war: the Russian don’t refer to it as a “Special Military Operation” for nothing: it is important to them to minimise its impact on the daily life of Russian citizens. This is a far cry from the total war idea we saw in the Second World War – but it is very much the way the Western powers have tried to conduct their wars, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq. Ukraine is having to play along with this, and restrain their attacks on Russian territory, and even on Crimea, which is widely recognised as theirs. They have more to lose from an escalation. And so we have a paradox at the heart of the Russian strategy – the conflict is claimed to be an existential battle with the West for Russian values, and yet the Russian commitment to it is restrained. The Russians hesitate to mobilise further troops, or force their population to endure major shortages as more economic heft is devoted to the war. The Russian leadership has, in fact, been remarkably successful in insulating their public. But it limits any attempts to overwhelm Ukraine – and is ceding the initiative on the ground.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, apparently feels that he has long-term advantages. Ukraine is dependent on Western succour, and this cannot last indefinitely. The leading Republican presidential candidates in America, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, seem reluctant to maintain American commitment – and the presidential election is only next year. European commitment can be seen as a glass half-full or half-empty, like so much of what Europeans do. Meanwhile China might start to come through as an ally, providing vital logistical support. Furthermore there are questions about how the Western powers can keep the supply of munitions going in the long term – it is hard to ramp up production volumes. So the Russian strategy looks to be to weather the storm from the upcoming Ukrainian offensive, and then slowly take the initiative back, until America in particular wilts.

Will this work? It is rather of the nature of war that the leaders of each side tend to under-estimate their opponents – and both sides in this war have been guilty of that. I think Mr Putin is here. But neither should we underestimate his grip on power in Russia, and nor his ability to keep the Russian war effort going. All of which is a grim prospect.

How might things end? The signs are that Russia could settle for keeping most of their territorial gains. They are likely to choose to do this through a ceasefire, followed by a frozen conflict, of the sort already ongoing before the 2022 assault (or those in Georgia and Azerbaijan – or Korea). Of course there would be talks toward a longer term settlement, but these would get nowhere. The conflict might then be reignited later if the balance of power shifted. Ukraine’s ambiguous status would prevent it from entering NATO. This seems to be more or less the sort of resolution China wants to achieve.

It is obvious enough why the Ukrainian government wants to avoid this outcome. They would lose much territory permanently, and the threat of re-ignition of the conflict would be constant. And yet it is difficult to see that the war will end in any other way. The Russian regime cannot admit that the war is over and that they have lost. Even if Mr Putin is replaced, it is highly unlikely that any replacement will renounce his expansionist narrative. The regime is tapping into widespread popular beliefs. This means that Ukraine must retake as much territory as possible before a ceasefire is forced on them.

This would put a priority on territory south of the Dnieper river up to the Sea of Azov. This forms a land bridge between Russia and the Crimean peninsula. This is, naturally, where Russian defences appear to be thickest. As the offensive moves from advance to stalemate, the Ukrainian leadership will then come under huge pressure to settle for a ceasefire accompanied by peace talks.

Once we get to a ceasefire and move to a frozen conflict, the pace of changes slows. This can go in roughly two directions. The worst case scenario is that Russia follows North Korea, and is gripped by a totalitarian regime that is an economic failure, but where the regime’s grip is secure. The alternative is that we follow the Cold War, where the Russian leadership’s economic and other failings lead to a loss of confidence and political implosion… and ultimately a new settlement with the West. Ukraine, meanwhile, embraces the West and the European Union, and enjoys economic success as it rebuilds. Such rebuilding efforts usually surpass outside expectation – and the manner Ukraine’s military and civic success in beating off the Russians bodes well for its economic development, just as the Russian security elite’s tightening grip bodes ill for Russia’s.

But first this summer’s events will shape who controls the ground. Alas that means that there will be many thousands more deaths before we can approach some kind of resolution.

Anti-Tory pacts – lessons from Wealden

Analysis: Matthew Green thinkingliberal.co.uk

Such is the paradox of the information age. Massive amounts of information from across the globe is at our fingertips, and we can now use AI tools to retrieve it with startling efficiency. But news reporting, especially local news reporting, has collapsed – so many, many interesting things are liable to escape our attention because they will never get into to the accessible database. There has been a wealth of reporting on last week’s local election results in England. But many interesting, and important, local stories remain unremarked. Such is the case in my local area, with the district council elections of Wealden in East Sussex – and arbitrary bureaucratic agglomeration of villages and small towns, whose main centres are Uckfield, Hailsham and Crowborough, each of roughly equal size.

The first point to make about this is that I wasn’t involved in these elections, in spite of being a party member. I haven’t talked to any of the actors since long before the campaign started. My reporting is based simply on the results published by the council. I hope to find out more later – but I’m not minded to harass exhausted newly-elected councillors who have important decisions to make about running the council. I’m a blogger, not a journalist.

It was the first British public election since 1979 in which I did not vote for the Liberal Democrats, or one its predecessor parties. That was because they did not field a candidate in my ward. There were only three candidates: a Conservative, a Green and an independent who did not put up much of a visible campaign. I voted for the Green candidate, Christina Coleman, who won with 64% of the vote against the Conservative incumbent councillor, Roy Galley, who had won in 2019 with 59% of the vote, against just a Green candidate. Ms Coleman increased the Green vote from 523 to 1,107, while Mr Galley’s vote sunk to 545 from 749. As I searched through the results, I found that this outcome was not untypical. The Conservatives contested wards opposed by typically only one other party. And they lost badly, sinking from 34 councillors (out of 45) to just 9, behind both the Lib Dems (13) and Greens (11). This was a shocking result in a part of the Blue Wall that is so blue that most people don’t regard it as politically competitive. This bespeaks serious trouble for the Conservatives. It is hard to exaggerate the degree of disgust with the party amongst most of my neighbours, whom I would describe mostly liberal conservatives. One Conservative inclined neighbour is even more unforgiving of the Liz Truss episode than I am.

But that is unremarkable. It has been picked up by the main media commentary. What is remarkable was the degree of cooperation amongst the Conservatives’ opponents, and how well this worked. To put a bit of substance behind this story I have analysed the detailed results in the table above. This is all my own work and it’s possible the odd error has crept in. First, some basics to help understand the figures. There are 41 wards, four of which elected two councillors, and the rest just one. One was uncontested – the Conservatives were elected unopposed. The Conservatives contested all the wards except one (where an independent stood, and lost, against a Green). In the analysis I have tried to exclude candidates without serious backing or a campaign. I judged these to be independents who did not manage to gain 100 votes, and minor parties (though in one ward there was a Reform UK candidate, and in a another a pair of Ukippers, all of whom received over 100 votes); I have left in all of the Labour candidates, although one failed to reach 100.

The Lib Dems put up 23 candidates, doubtless so that they could claim that they could theoretically win a majority on their own. But they were opposed by the Greens in only three cases, and Labour in one, with “serious” independents in four. Eleven of the Lib Dem candidates faced no other serious opponent than the Conservatives; they were all elected – but only two others were. The Greens put up only 14 candidates – nine of these faced only one serious opponent (well, 10 if you exclude a weakly supported Labour candidate) – all (ten) of these were elected, along with one other. Three Labour candidates out of 11 were given a clear run against Conservative candidates; none were elected. Two Labour candidates were elected in three-cornered battles with Conservatives and independents (including a split result in a two member ward) – their first councillors in the district. The independents are by their nature not a coherent party, so the analysis means less – but their 18 serious candidates were involved in only four straight fights – three against the Conservatives (which they all won) and the lost fight with a Green. There were 13 three or four cornered contests: the Conservatives won six of their councillors here. These six, the two straight fights with Labour and the one uncontested ward were all the councillors they won. They won no contest in a straight fight with Lib Dems, Green or Independents. In two case of the more complex contests, the Conservatives prevailed with under 40% of the vote. In only three cases Greens and Lib Dems ran candidates against each other – the Conservatives won in two of them (with under half the vote), with the Greens winning the third comfortably with the worst Lib Dem performance of the day.

So far as I know there were no formal pacts – if there had been, the picture would have been a bit tidier. But cooperation is evident, and, as a device for winning against Conservatives, it proved highly effective – but less effective where Labour were putting up the candidate. How far can we extend the conclusions to a general election? Local and national elections are different – but the main problem for the Tories in Wealden was their unpopularity at national level. Their Wealden administration is not particularly unpopular, though no especially popular either. This suggests to me that an electoral pact between the Greens and the Lib Dems could turn some seats in the Blue Wall unless the government can seriously scare voters about the prospect of a Labour-led government. Wealden borough closely corresponds to a parliamentary seat, also called Wealden, which is very safely for the Conservatives (the Lib Dems edging ahead of Labour into a distant second) – but this all changes when new parliamentary boundaries come in. Such a pact would follow one made in 2019, but could be much more effective if voters are less scared of Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader than Jeremy Corbyn.

But it would be very hard to bring Labour into such a pact. Many former Conservative voters will vote for the Lib Dems or Greens (somewhat ironically since the Greens are closer to Corbyn’s Labour than Starmer’s), but draw the line at voting Labour. So there is much less in such a deal for Labour than the other parties, and it would be a major distraction from Labour’s main campaigning focus. Also Sir Keir is setting his face against electoral reform (which would be another distraction for him), which reduces the attraction of Labour to Lib Dems and Greens.

In the right circumstances electoral pacts work. Given the severe distortions imposed by the current electoral system I would have no qualms about my party entering into such a pact.