Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 23 June 2016

Why do people want less EU immigration?

Why will around half of the UK vote for Brexit? The answer you will hear time and again is EU immigration. But why do people dislike EU immigration? Of course people fear the unfamiliar, and that is a fear that can be played upon, but is that really why people dislike EU immigration? Not according to this poll.

More people think that EU immigration has been good for them personally than think the opposite. I’ll repeat that: more people think that EU immigration has been good for them personally than think the opposite. More people think the culture of Britain has been improved by EU immigration than the opposite.

The reason people think EU migration has been bad for Britain is the impact on the NHS, and therefore by inference other public services. It is commonsense to many people that EU immigration increases the pressure on the NHS and public services, and it is confirmed by the newspapers they read: here is one example, and here are some more.

What people miss is that EU migrants pay tax, which could fund public services. Indeed EU migrants tend to be young, so they are likely to pay more tax in than they are likely to take out from using public services. It is why the OBR believes that restrictions on immigration would hurt the public finances.

Which means that in reality EU migration creates more resources that allows the government to spend more on the NHS and other public services. Not only do EU migrants pay for themselves in this respect, they also make access easier for natives. Add in the negative impact of making trade with the EU more difficult, and it is clear that Brexit would have a negative impact on public services. No wonder Dr Sarah Wollaston switched sides.

Yet this is an argument David Cameron was reluctant to make, because it raises an obvious question. If EU migration is not the reason why the NHS is in crisis, what is? The answer is that his government has chosen to shrink the share of national income going to the NHS, when there are good reasons why this share should be rising. In other words the government has taken the taxes EU migrants pay, and used them to cut taxes or cut the deficit. Because Cameron will not make the case for why EU migration helps the NHS, that case is not heard by voters. Instead they are told all the time that the NHS has been 'protected'. Hence the poll result.

Whatever happens today, this point is of vital importance. So many people will be telling both the government and the Labour party that the EU referendum - whatever the actual result - has shown that to win votes politicians must cut immigration. What the poll above suggests is that what people really want is a better NHS, and that they incorrectly believe that less EU migration is a way to get it. .


  1. Thanks - this is just the kind of thing we're going to need, as we work to uncover the British working class's real "very real concerns"!

  2. Interesting poll, thank you.

    With 46% percent of respondents saying immigration has been bad or good for them personally, means 54% do not think either way. For them immigration is personally neutral.

    However, if they think as a majority 42% it is bad for Britain, then that will influence their judgement.

    Also, what is the effect on housing? Left out of the poll.

    Immigration produces winners and losers. Whereas immigration is undoubtedly be good in terms of GDP growth, it influences wages and competition for resources.

    Unless winners and losers are identified, and additional resources for housing and schools identified and costed then any discussions are necessarily of limited value.

    Doing that analytical work does not necessarily lead to a cut in immigration, but perhaps to more house-building and more school-building.

  3. Not really a comment, just a short note to say thank you for your coverage of the referendum, particularly analysis of the economic consequences.

    I went from undecided (because appalled by EU's behaviour with regard to Greece especially ) to a convinced 'Remain'.

  4. “Indeed EU migrants tend to be young, so they are likely to pay more tax in than they are likely to take out from using public services. It is why the OBR believes that restrictions on immigration would hurt the public finances.”

    Fine: but they eventually grow old! At which point we import even more immigrants? Indeed I’ve come across of two studies done into the “immigration deals with the ageing population problem” which show that if we deal with that alleged problem JUST BY accepting more immigrants, there’s a catastrophic and exponential increase in the population: it doubles every fifty years or so.

    Plus I was personally induced to vote Brexit partially by Merkel’s ridiculous open borders policy. If Germany wants to turn itself into an Afro Islamic state, that’s OK by me. But I don’t want those migrants then flooding into Britain. I also note that scarcely a single advocate of open borders chooses to go and live in the Muslim part of Nigeria where they can enjoy first-hand the alleged wonders of that sort of society.

  5. "What people miss is that EU migrants pay tax, which could fund public services." You know fine well what the figures are, you know that the benefits of being in this country are way greater than what most migrants pay in tax, you know what those services cost to provide, and you know that Oxford's Migration Observatory has spelled out in painful detail exactly why EU migrants will be a massive net cost to the UK. But you'll keep saying the opposite, and tolerate the corrosive effect on your credibility. You want to know why people ignore economists? Because economists will trade their long-run credibility for either consistency or the defence of a "right-thinking" opinion. You say, "...EU migrants tend to be young, so they are likely to pay more tax in than they are likely to take out from using public services", and yet you don't feel required to admit what your position then requires: that EU migrants all have a picture in their attic that ages instead of them. You say that " reality EU migration creates more resources that allows the government to spend more on the NHS and other public services", without ever noting that this claim doesn't hold good over any period of time - the Migration Observatory report again makes this clear. You quote the OBR, but omit mentioning that they note that the "contribution" of very low-paid young people is a statistical artifact, and if they aren't to bankrupt us they'll need to either transform themselves in ways unimagined by science, leave the country or be volunteer for the trip imagined in both Logan's Run and Brave New World. I'm honestly staggered that you're prepared to do this. I wasn't lucky enough to go to Oxford. I had to make do with a four year Glasgow MA. Just recently, though, Glasgow's Hillhead has begun to look like the Pnyx and Byre's Road the agora. Do you think that a democrat, on a day such as this, should be making these claims?

  6. Unskilled EU immigrants who wouldn't get a Visa are not beneficial. Therefore we increase the net benefit of EU immigrants by leaving. It frees up slots for higher skilled individuals across the world.

    "What people miss is that EU migrants pay tax, which could fund public services."

    Firstly taxes fund nothing in a government that issues its own currency. Secondly tax gets paid whether the immigrant is there or not. Do the 'my spending is your income' arithmetic progression.

    "Not only do EU migrants pay for themselves in this respect, they also make access easier for natives."

    (i) that won't change. Skilled workers get work visas.
    (ii) how does the source country of those migrants feel about you stealing their doctors and reducing the capacity of their health care system - all because we are too stupid to train our own?

    *If the British Public vote Leave* it is really up to people like you to exploit the best in that.

    For example at the moment the state cannot really get involved in transformational investment because of the restrictions in the EU treaty on state aid, and lack of direct access to the central bank.

    If we want fully insulated houses, green power production and outright bans on carbon polluters we need to take back control and then we can get on with it. Think of the positives and how to counter the Tories.

    Otherwise we're relying on the private markets, and it will never happen. We need rid of EU procurement process, hire the staff directly and get on with it.

    But outside the EU that is a possibility.

  7. Nope. Labour greatly improved the performance of the NHS yet opinion polling showed immigration was voters' biggest concern in 2001 or 2005. Labour won those elections anyway of course, but immigration surely limited the Labour share of the vote all along. The right-wing rags complaining about it 5 days a week for 13 years takes its toll. The left needs to take this weapon out of the hands of the right forever -- I suggest when future EU treaties are negotiated, that the UK should demand two conditions or it will not sign or ratify them. 1 is no further integration for the UK. 2 is the UK must be given control of immigration.

    I realise people like Migration Watch fudged the numbers, that immigrants are good for public finances because they are unlikely to be unemployed or retired. But the time for denial of this *political*, not economic, problem is over. We cannot, after all, muzzle the press and tell them to support immigration. And on census day, there were 500 000 resident polls. That's not a bullshit number. It's too high, politically, and it has to stop.

    The poll you cited doesn't cover the biggy, which is JOBS.

    Some Leavers surely don't care about immigration at all but do believe deregulation will make them richer. There has been a constituency of such middle class philistines for decades and they are not going away. Now plug their votes into those of both working and middle class people scared of immigration, and you may get a majority to leave the EU. As this mustn't happen, the immigration will have to be controlled. If I was PM, I would consider doing it unilaterally in violation of EU law to force the others to the negotiating table. Those countries' electorates will not sit still while we prevent immigration and their governments don't. That would get things moving.

  8. Lately you've been putting up these rather weak arguments apparently just because they're easy to knock down, but the other problems with EU immigration - the system rather than the people that is - is that it prefers predominately white Europeans over predominately non-whites from outside Europe and also that it prefers unskilled EU citizens over skilled non-EU citizens.

    That is, it's both a sub-optimal selection and also indirectly racist.

  9. Tragic that the forces of ignorance and fear can be whipped into a frenzy by demagogues.

    Keep fighting the good fight Simon!

  10. Les jeux sont faits. I don't know why Brexit won, I'm not British. I think the tragedy might be that people voted against their material interest, they voted out fear of the other, or out of being fed up with the establishment.

    Paul Krugman says the now decimated pound might be good for some British industries and workers. David Beckworth says a strengthened dollar could be bad for the global economy.

    Bottom line: we don't know. Through the looking glass, as it were.

    Oh, and thanks Britain, for trashing my equities account. It's not going to pretty when the S & P opens.

    1. David

      Blame Fox news for your account - both it and the pro leave tabloids are part of Murdoch's empire.

  11. Simon,

    will you let me repeat my previous reasoning:

    The past, 2009-2015, or so:

    1) People vote for austerity (NHS!) - clearly an error.
    2) No one ever admits error, people seek scapegoats.
    3) Pressure on public services? It must be immigrants, it can't be austerity!

    Immigration is a strong motivator in the referendum.

    The present, Cameron falls on his sword:

    1) People vote for brexit - clearly an error.
    2) No one ever admits error, people seek scapegoats.
    3) Economic decline as a result of brexit: did I not tell you: immigrants!

    The future, Boris falls on his sword.

    More extreme, openly racist people come to power. How to stop this positive feed back loop?

  12. Interesting, and a very good point. But why isn't housing mentioned among the main concerns? Don't people in the UK think that immigrants drive up the cost of housing?

  13. Kevin Drum, a blogger at Mother Jones in the US, noted something really startling demographically two days ago. A survey showed 18-24 year-olds wanting to remain by a 40 point margin! And those 60+ wanting to leave by a 21 point margin. An incredible contrast. At:

  14. Interesting post. But overwhelmingly the reason given why leavers wanted to leave was immigration. Why is immigration a problem ? Immigration concerns proceeded austerity and major cuts to the NHS. Both the EU and immigration became concerns in the 2000s and the two increasingly linked. The EU was a little interest to most people until the arrival of large numbers of migrants after expansion. If this referendum was held even 10 years ago it would have been a clear win for remain.

    The problems I think relate to things like fears of a large population on a small already overcrowded island. Those population forecasts (80 million) were a crucial game changer in the campaign that followed the latest immigration statistics about a month before the vote. It made big headlines. The Brexiters line of 'out of control' was very effective. Before this, remain were in the lead - although of course there was always a large undecided vote.

    Identity issues were big - the notion that the country was changing "beyond recognition" (how many times did we hear that) and it was not change people had a say in.

  15. I wanted to make this comment yesterday - but it's now more pertinent in line with the referendum result and your subsequent post.

    As you say it depends on how the media chooses to frame things; I recently heard an interesting take on tis on (I think) the BBC World Service, where one of their chosen commentators phrased the question of immigration to and from Britain something like this:

    "We have to look at the age profile of Britains abroad, for instance are they elderly people receiving pensions and propping up the local economy, or are they young people looking for jobs. In other words, are they takers, or givers?"

    The final sentence being the kicker - all of which was said without challenge.

  16. Seems to me the thing that bothered people most was not EU immigration but Third World immigration. And that is completely within London's control. So this was perhaps to some extent a F%$#-you vote to London as much as the EU.

  17. Ask British people how they feel about the EU (and other) immigration on crime. That was a curious absence in the graphic shown above. Rotherham voted 68% to leave, for example.

  18. Simon W-L - I agree, and all of the above is true and logical, but in many places, away from my home in London and yours in Oxford, that is not quite the logic that is always applied. The ability to think through single issues logically, and to come to a conclusion as a result of the sum of these decisions has been eroded by cultural shock. Living in a small place, in Lincolnshire, for example, and finding that, within a space for a few years, it has become very hard to get a doctors appointment, or your child into you preferred school ,at the same time as the streets of the town was full of, say, Polish shops, and that, in the GP's waiting room, many languages were spoken, after decades of undiluted Englishness, can weaken social cohesion, and unsettles some people to the extent that it short circuits logic,, and they put 2 and 2 together and make 5. The immigrant population is an easier target than the government that the same people may have voted for. And elements of the media fan these flames,

    It should have been up to liberal thinking politicians to acknowledge this and address it not only in their language, but in practical ways. The Remain campaign failed to do this adequately - as I found out, manning the phonebank at Labour HQ last night.

    1. Thanks for your post. I was a remain voter, but I know an economist could not possible understand the reasons why the country went for leave. I am not sure issues of identity should be part of the economics curriculum - is it relevant for understanding the determination of prices? Either way I think a political scientist can understand why. The elite were also terribly out of touch - the immigration issue has been terribly mishandled. They were far too complacent despite a lot of danger signs.

    2. Anonymous - I agree. Sadly, SWL just doesn't get it, committed as he is to viewing society through the narrow prism of economics. There are other issues involved, as the results of the EU referendum have so clearly illustrated.

  19. Manchester has created tens of thousands of jobs in the last 15 years yet poverty is endemic across the city's working class. Why? They have been going to everyone but them. In the 1990s the bars, restaurants and shops of the city centre were staffed by working class Mancunians. No more. They've been replaced to a large extent by students (foreign and British) and foreign labour (EU and non-EU).

    How does a macro economist not recognise the realities of mass immigration on a highly free market economy? The studies which attempt to wave this all away are almost always produced by the open borders cranks at UCL.

    Every part of Manchester used to have its own feel, its own character and its own stories. Today, everywhere is diversely the same.

    Mass immigration is globalisation. Globalisation is alienation.

    No amount of taxes paid on jobs which could be done by the British working class make up for that.

    The false consciousness belongs to those who in previous times were enthrall to equally unworkable and unpopular ideas like communism not those awful tabloid reading Brits who can see the reality of globalised labour markets in front of their very noses on a daily basis.


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