I am on the wrong side of public opinion on one of the major issues of the time.
I support the free movement of Labour across Europe, and am, in general, of the belief that immigration is not a great national evil to be opposed. This is, clearly, not the popular centrist stance I usually find myself enjoying.
As a fellow who regards the business of winning votes as not irrelevant to the proper practice of politics, this poses a conundrum.
So here’s my pitch to voters who I know disagree with me1.
Yes. Immigration is an issue.
No, it’s not racist to be concerned by it.
Yes, we should talk about it, and work out what to do about it.
Back in the days of the British Empire, it used to be said that to be born British was to have won life’s lottery.
It doesn’t much feel like it, but that’s still true today.
Britain is one of the richest, longest lived, best educated, freest places in the world.
The sixty-five million of us who live here are envied, across Europe and around the world. That’s why some of the other seven billion people in the world want to come and live here.
It’s the same reason the Irish came a hundred years ago and the Commonwealth migrants came fifty years ago, why Jewish migrants fled the Nazis.
Britain was a place where all could find good jobs, better wages, a place to express their views freely.
So in one sense, immigration is a good problem. Don’t laugh.
If you’re a successful, growing economy in an open society, more people will want to arrive than to leave.
Australia has an immigration problem because it’s a country tens of thousands of people want to live in.
North Korea has the reverse problem.
I know where I’d rather be, which is why every year thirty or forty thousand British people emigrate to Australia, and none move to North Korea.
So we know immigration is good for migrants, and it’s a sign your country is doing better than most.
It also probably makes the country richer.
Migrants work hard, pay taxes and live cheaply. Because they tend to be younger and employed they tend to contribute financially through taxes more than they take out in benefits.
So immigration is a good thing – for migrants and their children – people like me, and quite a lot of us. It’s good for the country too.
But here’s the rub.
None of that matters.
Because none of those things makes immigration good for British people.
Truth is, there are clear ways immigration makes life more stressful, makes living here harder.
There’s greater pressure on housing. Where there are sudden increases in population there are pressures on schools, and doctors appointments and hospitals.
There’s cultural elements too – other languages being spoken, different ways of behaving.
Now Government can – and should – do a better job of handling those pressures.
Of making sure school places are kept in line with children, of making sure public services don’t suffer because of new demands. Making sure you get a hospital appointment when you want it and that English is spoken in public services, that migrants understand British culture.
That’s government’s job. It’s what Government is for.
If government is doing it badly, kick them out and get a new one. Fair enough.
But that’s only half of it.
Because sure, Migration is good for tax revenue, and good for migrants, and a sign of a successful economy, and we should be able to handle the social pressures better.
But that doesn’t make migration good for people here to begin with.
What if you want a job, but a migrant is taking it?
What if you’re in a job, but aren’t getting a pay rise because someone from Poland will work cheaper?
Why should you want the migrant there at all?
Why shouldn’t we just stop there? Stop all the problems before they begin?
Isn’t that what’s really letting you down?
If you’re straight out of college and are not getting a job because a migrant is taking it, yes, the government has let you down.
But not because the migrant is taking your job.
We’ve let you down because with all the money we spent on education, all the money we spend on training. All the vocational, educational, and social support we offer, you’re still not able to compete with a Bulgarian learning English in his evenings.
Think about what that means. If that”s where we’re at, the failure isn’t about migrants. It’s that we’ve failed you far more completely.
That’s what we have to sort out.
If you’re in that situation, if you’ve not got the ability to compete with that Bulgarian, in the end you’re going to lose out to him whether he stays at home or moves to Britain.
Close the borders, and the factories will find their way to Poland, to Bulgaria, to India and China.
In the end, the job will move to where the best people are. So our job is to make sure we have the best people right here.
The basic truth is that the competition won’t go away. Not if you close your eyes, not if you shut the borders.
It’ll always be there. You don’t get rid of it by closing the borders, you just hope it won’t affect you.
But it will.
The people who tell you that we can just close the borders and save all the jobs for ourselves are telling you a lie.
It’s a lie it’s easy to believe, because we don’t see the bright kids in Bangalore or Bucharest.
We don’t see their ambitions unless they actually come here, and make us uncomfortable.
So yes, we can close the borders. Keep out the Eastern European office workers and the Indian programmers.
We can do that.
But it won’t mean better jobs for you, or higher wages, or a safer society.
It’ll mean those things go to Bangalore or Bucharest instead. That’s the bit the anti-immigration people always leave out.
In the end, the argument for allowing immigration is a selfish one.
We don’t allow migrants because it’s easy. It isn’t easy. It causes problems – from housing, to schools, to culture.
It would be easy to avoid all those problems.
In the face of that, the truth is that we allow migrants because the easy thing is sometimes the stupid thing.
Sometimes you have to deal with hard problems to avoid facing a problem you can do nothing about.
If you want Lisbon, Bangalore and Nanjing to grow, believe the snake oil salesmen, stop migrants, and let the factories and opportunity and talent slowly flow elsewhere.
But If you want London, Birmingham and Newcastle to grow, allow some migrants, use the money they make to help us compete better, and tell your politicians to manage the consequences better or be sacked.
- THERE FOLLOWS A DIGRESSION.
The other day John Harris argued, àpropos this issue, that we should not dismiss concerns over immigration as bigotry.
I thought that a tiresome charge, because there is a crucial difference between dismissing any concern about the social consequence of immigration as bigotry, when it is clearly not, and decrying the cynical exploitation of those concerns as unpleasant bigotry, when it plainly is.
The difference is not hard to grasp, and to accept one concern as legitimate does not invalidate the exposure of unpleasant prejudice, or make it a tactical error to name such prejudice frankly.
Still, where I agree with Harris is that immigration is no fringe issue for voters electoral preferences.
It’s a big election losing deal.
It is easy to get caught up in a debate that somehow avoids this.
To further take Harris as an example, the internationalist in me wants to reply to his request metropolitan liberals consider whether “free movement has been of most benefit to capital or Labour” by pointing out that he spent his preceding paragraphs describing the low wages immigrants from Eastern Europe have escaped. Presumably they were pleased to do so.
To discuss whether Free movement is good or bad for workers, just imagine that the EU were reduced to the UK, and that successful, vibrant, expanding London was growing concerned by an influx of Scots, Northerners and others from low wage, low-cost regions. London residents would understandably resent the competition posed by such workers. They might even vote for a London Independence Party that promised no further migration would be permitted.
Would the people of Newcastle, Glasgow, or, say Frome, welcome a London that so limited their right to come and work in the metropolis, even if that objection is presented as an effort to protect them from the exploitation of Rachmanite landlords and sweatshop businessmen?
I doubt it very much. No MP advocates restriction on the freedom of movement of their own constituents.
Unfortunately for me, Poles, and Latvians who benefit from free movement don’t vote, though perhaps their children will.
My comparison was not an idle one. The history of Irish catholic immigration to British cities is almost exactly the sort of major population and culture shift we see today from Eastern Europe. And yes, Irish workers too were exploited
Thankfully, it is now rare to hear objections to that past dislocation, even from the most home and hearth sort of Socialist. I cannot imagine Jon Cruddas enacting transitional limits on his own family.
In other words, the free movement of Labour between Ireland and Britain was good for capital, for Labour and for the culture of both peoples.
Yet it also divided working people, and often that division was exploited and used for electoral advantage (Check out Disraeli on Irish migration)
Which returns me to my problem. I might be able to enjoyably tweak the nose of a polemicist, but how can I be electorally realistic and intellectually consistent? [↩]