Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Problems with triangulating over immigration

I have talked before about why triangulation over austerity did not work for Labour, but why triangulation over Brexit seems to be more successful. Tony Blair’s latest intervention suggests it is worth asking the same question about immigration. (The report that he launched is well worth reading.) It is a question that lies at the heart of many Labour MPs views on the politics of Brexit.

One of the lessons from austerity is that it is very dangerous to triangulate on an issue where you appear, as a result, to admit fault or blame. If the deficit is a problem (in 2011, say), why did you let it get so large on your watch? This was why ‘too far, too fast’ failed: you acknowledge a problem, and therefore implicitly admit guilt. Getting over the idea that there is a delicate balancing act between reducing the deficit and protecting the recovery is difficult, particularly as it is also an incorrect idea.

It is an obvious point, but exactly the same was true for immigration. Just look at the headlines. The parallels with immigration and the deficit are clear. In office, Labour did the right thing in ignoring the deficit in 2009, and they also did the right thing in allowing substantial EU immigration before then. In both cases the instincts of many voters is to do the opposite: the government should tighten its belt in a recession just like the rest of us, and the country should be able to control and limit who comes in. In both cases, the moment a government that in the past appeared to ignore these voter instincts starts to appear to suggest the instincts are valid, they trash their own record.

You could argue that while this is clearly right for Miliband and 2015, it has less salience for Corbyn rather than Blair today. You could go further and say that what works for Brexit will work with immigration. Just as triangulation gets you the votes of those who sort of want Brexit but worry about the economic consequences, so too could triangulation over immigration get you the votes of those who want to control immigration but are worried about the economic consequences of May’s obsession with hitting targets.

Here I think we need to look at a second problem with triangulation, which is that the nature of the political debate is influenced by it (is endogenous to it). With Brexit it means that neither of the two main political parties is making the case against Brexit, so the (non-partisan) mainstream political debate tends to ignore the anti-Brexit case. One of the unfortunate consequences of the way the BBC and others interpret impartiality is to see it in terms of the two main political parties, rather than (in this case) the population as a whole, so the views of half the population get largely ignored.

You could argue that this may be of secondary importance for an issue like Brexit, because the anti-Brexit case is still fresh in the mind from the referendum campaign. But that is much less true of immigration. Immigration is now well and truly defined in the media as a ‘problem’, and it is very rare to hear a politician (or anyone else) sing its praises. (Jonathan Portes does his best, but when a well known BBC commentator says his views will not win many votes, you get a clear idea of what is going on. [1]) May is quite safe from the media when she says immigration reduces wages and access to public services. The implication of all this together with a large partisan print media is politicians fear talking about the benefits of immigration because that may ruin a carefully triangulated position.

The reality is of course very different. Study after study after study (from academics, not partisan think tanks) shows how much we benefit from EU migration, and how it has virtually no impact on wages. Immigration increases the resources available to provide public services by more than it uses those services. Yet this knowledge is not reflected in the media discourse. The reason is straightforward: the political right wants to use immigration as both an excuse (for the impact of austerity) and a weapon (to achieve Brexit, for example), and the left by and large keeps quiet because it is triangulating.

People in the media may object by quoting polls that suggest the public overwhelming wants to control immigration: they are just reflecting that opinion. (But see footnote [1].) But polls also say people want less taxes. If you dig deeper public attitudes are far more nuanced than the public debate suggests. Here is some data, from an international study, by IPSOS-MORI:

“British people have become more positive about the impact of immigration over recent years. Forty-five per cent say immigration has been good the economy, up from 38% a year ago and from 27% in 2011, and 38% say immigration has made it harder for native Britons to get a job, down from 48% a year ago and 62% in 2011. However, Britain is one of the countries most worried about the pressure placed on public services by immigration, with 59% concerned – although this too is down from 68% a year ago and from 76% in 2011, when Britain was the most worried of all the countries surveyed.”

In other words, as I have emphasised before, the thing that most worries people in the UK about immigration is a myth. Yet triangulation, together with the way the media creates what I call ‘politicised truths’, means that voters are unlikely to find out what the facts are. [2]

The way this ambivalence is often articulated is through the issue of skill. 75% of people want skilled migration to stay the same or increase, while the consensus is that we should have less low or semi-skilled migrants. Yet if you name some categories of semi-skilled migrants, it turns out a majority want the same or more care worker, waiters, construction workers [3] and fruit pickers. As Rick says “apart from the care workers, construction workers, waiters and fruit pickers, what have low skilled* EU migrants ever done for us?” Skill has just become a way of people reconciling their wish for lower immigration in abstract with a recognition that immigration is good for the economy. It is like wanting lower taxes achieved through improving the efficiency of public services.

So how can something that people are ambivalent about become a major political issue that helped push us out of the EU? One answer is the sheer weight of numbers, and for some particular regions not previously experiencing inward migration that seems to be true. (It also reflects the inertia in public service provision.) But the rise of anti-immigration sentiment elsewhere in Europe where recent flows are not exceptional suggests other forces are at work. In part it is far-right parties exploiting fears about terrorism. But much more importantly in the UK, it reflects the deliberate exploitation of immigration as an issue by the Conservative party.

This predates the increase in immigration from Eastern Europe. In 2001 William Hague talked about Tony Blair wanting to turn the UK into a ‘foreign land’. The political temptation on the right to play the immigration card is strong, but until Brexit it has always been duplicitous. The wiser heads in the Cameron/Osborne government never wanted to hit their own targets because of the economic damage it would cause, and as a result they did not even bother to use all the controls that were available with free movement. As Chris Dillow says, immigration was the only scapegoat left to deflect concern about austerity and stagnant productivity. Immigration scapegoating became part of what I have called neoliberal overreach. [4]

This is I think the main reason why triangulation over immigration is not an effective strategy. By trying to appeal to those who are moderately concerned about immigration, Labour falls into a right wing trap, which is to implicitly validate their scapegoating. You can only convincingly argue that scarce public services are due to austerity rather than immigration if you can argue at the same time that immigration brings more resources to the public sector than it uses. You can only argue that economic policy is responsible for stagnant wages if you also say that it is not the fault of immigrants. Labour should go with its members and argue for the benefits of immigration, and in particular free movement with the EU. [5]

[1] This simple exchange illustrated so clearly to me why the BBC’s so called mission to inform and explain is often no more than a joke. Rather than regard popular beliefs that are incorrect as something the BBC has a duty to try and reverse, they are instead used to dismiss expertise.

[2] This is not just a UK phenomenon: around the world politicians use immigrants as scapegoats.

[3] I’m often told that economic studies of the benefits of immigration ignore ‘existing capital like housing’. Yet we need migrants to help build more houses for natives as well as migrants. The only thing that migrants cannot bring to the UK is more land, but with an effective regional policy which we desperately need anyway we have plenty of land.

[4] Some have asked why I called it overreach, when most just talk about the collapse of neoliberalism? For a start, using immigration as a political weapon is not a natural consequence of neoliberalism, and instead comes more from the social conservative part of right wing parties. Also while I think neoliberalism encouraged austerity, I can quite imagine those with neoliberal views forsaking it.

[5] There is an argument that free movement should be opposed because it is unfair to non-EU migrants. Yet you could make the same point about any trade agreement between two countries: it is unfair on all other countries. Arguments about equity that make some people worse off and no one better off give equity a bad name.


  1. The very last point (footnote 5) is a tough one. I think it's spurious - inasmuch as the broader Brexit debate is in no way driven by a desire for more immigration, from any source - but a lot of people on the centre and centre-left of Labour have taken it up, and it can be backed by good anti-racist and anti-imperialist arguments. Personally I'd cut the knot by opening all the borders, but unfortunately I'm not king of the world.

    1. I think footnote 5 is correct, but the conclusion drawn from it by SW-L is wrong. My conclusion is that while you could open borders to other countries one at a time, it is not racist or xenophobic to oppose this, any more than it is racist or xenophobic for the EU to deny FoM to Africans, Asians, Americans.

    2. "The very last point (footnote 5) is a tough one."

      I don't think it's that tough. If you start saying "Freedom of movement within the EU is discriminatory towards citizens of other countries" then the logical next step is "FoM within the UK is discriminatory". Why should London let Northumbrians in without checks but not Filipinos? The only way to be non-discriminatory would be to institute an internal passport system, much like China, right?

      Of course, "anti-imperialists" never take that logical next step, because deep down they still believe in nationalism. That's how you get people like Mélenchon who is willing to dismantle the EU if he doesn't get his way, but would certainly never consider dismantling France.

  2. We know that the government wants a transitional deal which will be similar to current conditions of EU membership, and that a general election must be called by 2022 when the government wants to have finished its Brexit process.

    Should Labour makes its stand now, at this year's party conference?

  3. The argument as stated here seems to be that "immigration is good" or possibly equivalently "free movement of people is good" without qualification. I would like to know if there are acknowledged practical or theoretical limits to immigration.
    Firstly, is free movement within the EU as currently defined an optimum? Would adding other countries or the whole world be better or worse? Not as an issue of fairness but is more always better or is there some ideal source population or even a point at which free movement is harmful?
    Is there an optimal population for England and Scotland and Wales? If 5 million more would be an improvement, what about 50 million or 500 million? How will this be decided? By government policy? By market forces? Physical constraints? Some form of natural saturation?
    Is there some optimum mix of immigrants or would any person of any background and with any or no skills or of any age be equivalent?
    Should immigrants be screened in any way or are criminals and political extremists equally welcome. Anti-semites? Neo-nazis? Racists? Misogynists?
    I do not doubt that some reasonable level of migration is a positive good but there seems likely to be levels which are not beneficial to a majority of the existing population and even to other recent immigrants. Does this not imply some measure of control and selection?
    To take an extreme example, 50 million of the people living in Bangladesh could move to England leaving both countries with approximately equal population densities. Would this have no negative effects let alone positive effects on England? Should only the rich or politically connected immigrate? Those who can show proof of employment?
    It appears to me what is being argued is that the moderate amount of immigration resulting from the freedom of movement within the EU has not been shown to be harmful to the UK as it is largely semi-skilled labour plus a much smaller number of skilled or professional employees balanced by the opportunity for skilled or professional UK employees to travel and work in the EU. Those arguing for free movement seem to be those benefiting from these opportunities or in the class of people who do benefit.
    It seems to me that the lack of explicit qualification (immigration largely limited to moderate number EU citizens of productive working age willing to work hard in semi-skilled and unskilled jobs) is a large part of the political problem. Most people a fearful of the extremes of uncontrolled mass migration and are given no credible assurances that this will not occur.
    Finally, if an 'effective regional policy' is a precondition for immigration to be benign with respect to land use, are there not good reasons to be sceptical?

    1. "Most people a fearful of the extremes of uncontrolled mass migration and are given no credible assurances that this will not occur." +100 points.

      "if an 'effective regional policy' is a precondition for immigration to be benign with respect to land use, are there not good reasons to be sceptical?" +100 points.

      Maybe immigration is good for our per capita incomes or maybe it is bad, but yes of course it is gonna depend on circumstances. That is what we must CONVINCINGLY demonstrate, because unfortunately anti-immigration newspapers have an easy time suggesting it is bad.

      Consider if there was an open border between Mexico and the USA. 100 million Mexicans might as well pack up and move to the States, at least as the recovery gathers pace (there's no net migration right now). Now try proving this would increase per capita growth in the USA in an academic paper. OK. Now try convincing a newspaper reader or TV viewer, because they can vote. Let's get interested in other ways of raising growth INSTEAD!

  4. Are think you are very wrong here. And this is a good example of why there is such distrust of so-called experts. Firstly an econometric model was used by economists that greatly underestimated the movement of people from the accession countries (a conservative one and a half million, not 13 000). Then the so-called experts said they would go home (they didn't). When they didn't the experts then conveniently said that we could not have done without the massive inward movement.

    I am not in favour of Draconian immigration controls or Brexit. But like many others, I am getting tired of this sort of narrative. Instead of trying to find out the intentions of populations of the new member countries (that is one reason why we have embassies, anthropologists and Slavonic Studies departments), they assumed homogeneity and used an econometric model. The ultimate consequence of this hubris was that we were forced out of the European Union. A very costly mistake, but I suspect those economists are still in their jobs. OK, you might blame austerity and the panic at pictures of supposedly millions of refugees supposedly about to arrive in the UK as the real reasons for discontent and anti-immigration sentiment, but the fact is you are politically naive if you expect to have such a surge of inward population movement and not to suspect you might be skating on thin ice.

    This discussion also reveals a lot about the state of economics and why we need multidisciplinary engagement and a schools of thought approach. A Marxist would arguably agree, a highly liberalised capitalist nation like Britain does need immigration. But the reason for that is rather like a very liberalised and free trade and capital regime: the result of such a regime is that you build up a dependence on foreign goods, capital and in the case of large continuous immigration: foreign labour. And this dependence might not be to the advantage of weaker members of society and may weaken the government's ability to address the distributive consequences. In other words what we have here is a huge missing variable in economics and rational choice approaches: issues relating to power.

    Ultimately if we want to address shortages in the NHS and develop a balanced industrial structure while obliging the population's wishes to slow down immigration and population growth to historically more normal levels, it is going to have to be done in-house. Nurses are going to have to be found within the native population. These wishes cannot be sensibly reconciled with Ricardian theory.

    You are also wrong with what you say about the Tories wanting to make immigration an issue. This has been a massive headache for them that was created by Blair. It ultimately forced Cameron to call the referendum while greatly weakening the pro-EU wing of the Tories. The Tory leadership also know they cannot realistically meet their targets. They would love the issue to just go away. I also suspect that immigration is problematic for Labour.

    1. Or, the weaker members of society *might* be made better off by the immigration (or not) but think they're definitely worse off, and in their weakness may be really scared by the notion, when the tabloids serve it up every day, something SW-L wants to prevent with legal changes. But media regulation can't be changed til Labour are back in, which immigration fears work against...

      You are very right about the nurses (not that I'd want to leave the EU over it). Surely ppl realise the foreign nurses here can be transformed into Brits with a change in the law. Then future nurses can be recruited from the UK.

      Most interesting point about Blair handing the ticking bomb to Cameron and the pro-EU Tories, and not something I'd considered before.

  5. This is an update of a comment I've made before.

    90% of the the Big Money behind the Brexit campaign came from:

    Arron Banks (Insurance and diamond mines) £8.1m
    Peter Hargreaves (Financial Services) £3.2m
    Jeremy Hosking (Investment & Private Equity) £1.7m
    Robert Edmiston (Luxury car importer) £1m
    Crispin Odey (Hedge fund manager) £873K
    Lord Banford (Head of JCB) £673K

    These people may have campaigned for Brexit for high-minded reasons, truly believing that a low-tax, low regulation, free-trade economy is in the best interests of the British people. (Does this mean a repeat of Cameron's "bonfire of regulations"? Would, say, regulations on the cladding used on tower blocks go on the bonfire?)
    There is also the possibility that they thought such an economy, with restricted immigration, would prove profitable for their businesses.

    For the top 1%:

    There are low taxes
    Anyone can import goods into the UK and not pay a tariff and undercut British workers.
    Lax financial regulation (code for “easy tax avoidance and money laundering”) will encourage foreign investment.
    For the lower-orders there will be low wages, weak unions/workers’s rights and reduced public services.

    But can the 1% persuade the lower-orders to accept these conditions? Well a lot of newspapers, owned by tax-dodging billionaires, have been hard at work on this task for many years.
    Or maybe the 1% think they can hide it from the lower-orders until it can be implemented. Patrick Minford’s “£135 billion per year better off outside the EU [for the 1%]” seems to rely on the lower-orders bowing to their fate, one way or another.

    The Brexit campaign then used immigration as the issue to get enough of the public to vote the way they wanted. In terms of EU immigrants per capita, the UK is about half-way down the EU28 league. By “bigging-up” immigration, the press—the propaganda arm of Big Money Brexit—then created the impression that the UK was at the top of league.

    Professor Vernon Bogdanor even-handedly explores this scenario with great clarity in "Briefings - Britain and the EU: One year On', an hour-long TV lecture which was shown over the summer on the BBC - Parliament channel.

    It’s now available on the Gresham College website

  6. I'm confused about your opinion on Blair. Are you arguing against his action or for it? Also, the rot has already been set in, what does Labour gain from doing the right thing? Nothing.

  7. Certainly interesting, and a case that needs to be heard in the public domain.

    One point you don't mention - unless I missed it - is that concern, not to say resentment, about immigration seems to be highest where actual numbers are lowest. This is not 100% consistent - some of the agricultural areas with high seasonal workers also have recorded high Brexit and UKIP votes - but the North East and Wales are both distinguished by very low levels of immigration (as I understand it both EU and non-EU) and high levels of 'concern'.

    There's a massive educational job to be done but who will do it? This is not just ivory-towerism. Anti-immigrant forces are very low in many of the inner cities and other areas that are viewed as 'working class' so long as the working class has real contact with the immigrants in question.

    Incidentally, I believe EU rules would allow the UK to be much stricter on issues like a reasonable time looking for work before residence rights are cancelled, anti-vagrancy and so on. The problem is a UK domestic one of enforcement: in the absence of a universal ID card system it is extraordinarily difficult for the 'authorities' to know who is where. Perhaps that's a good thing, but there's clearly a downside.

  8. Aren't a lot of anti-immigration types motivated not by a belief that immigrants put pressure on public services, but rather by the belief that the UK's population is too large?

    That's probably why some Brexiters have a fascination with Australia, New Zealand and Canada: it's nothing to do with trade, rather a view that these sparsely-populated English-speaking countries could once again become Lebensraum to relieve an overpopulated Britain.

    1. I don't think any such fascination with such countries is a desire for Brits (or Europeans) to go there as a Lebensraum but because those countries have low pop density and Britain does not.

  9. Your linked to cartoon describes how open borders means that those with "intelligence and grit" migrate to rich countries to wash dishes and then found Google and that helps the receiving countries. I really struggle with all of this. I totally understand that if someone is a technology developer, then it would make sense for them to go to a global hub such as silicon valley. The whole global economy could benefit from that. The dishwashing, lawn cutting, fruit picking etc that is also described seems very very different to me. For a start, much of that is in place of automation and innovation. There are fruit picking robots; development and expansion of the robot fruit picking industry is stymied by the plentiful availability of migrants working in slave like conditions in Europe and the USA. We could just have uncut lawns and each make our own sandwiches etc. GDP might be less but frankly the potential lawn cutters etc might be doing much better for humanity doing some much more worthwhile work in poorer countries -or engaging in entrepreneurism and/or political activism to get their own countries on track and providing decent jobs for themselves. Depopulation has ravaged the economies of places such as Bulgaria and Latvia that have seen an exodus of young people with "intelligence and grit" who potentially could have been rebuilding those countries. The described "ideal model" amounts to a constant flow of first generation immigrants washing dishes and then presumably wanting a new cohort to come in and wash their dishes for them in turn. I see a decent system as one where every job that needs doing gets the respect, pay and conditions that make it desirable so no such less privileged class of people needs to be brought in to do it. If that means we have scruffy lawns, then hedgehogs might thank us.


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