Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Was Labour’s decision on EU immigration in 2004 a mistake?

The Labour government decided to let people from the A8 eastern and central European countries that had just joined the EU to have free access to the UK from 2004. Most other member countries delayed the point at which free movement from these countries was allowed. As a result, we had a large influx of migrants from Poland and other countries from 2004.

The received wisdom seems to be that this was a huge mistake. Jack Straw called it a spectacular mistake. Ed Miliband said the government had got it wrong. I’m reminded of this by Ian Jack, who recently in the Guardian gave us eight reasons that we ended up with Brexit. One was that decision by Labour. He writes

“immigration had begun to die as a political issue until, in 2004, Tony Blair’s government decided to open the UK labour market to the eight eastern and central European countries that had joined the EU.”

Here is data on UK immigration and Ipsos-Mori’s running poll on how many people think immigration is an important issue. (You can see data on all the issues here.)

It is certainly true that immigration has ceased to be viewed as an important issue (blue line) in the late 1990s. But immigration’s importance as an issue rose dramatically not from 2004, but well before 2004. From 2004 to 2008 it increased a little, but then declined as worries about the economy took centre stage.

This does not fit Jack’s story about a dead issue reignited by immigration from the EU in 2004, unless voters were anticipating the decision. It seems more likely that voters were responding the large increase in non-EU immigration that happened after Labour came to power, as the chart below shows.

But even that seems improbable: did it really take people a few years to notice. Here I show that there is a variable whose timing correlates with the increasing importance of immigration as an issue with only a slight lead: news stories about immigration. I give lots of evidence that suggests that the relationship is causal: press coverage about immigration, which in most papers is invariably negative, causes people to say immigration is an important issue.

Once you allow the press to have an important causal role on attitudes, and as I describe here there is good evidence that they do, the story that the 2004 decision was a big mistake can be seen in a different light. What we can say is that high immigration from the late 90s allowed the press to write about immigrants flooding the country, and the 2004 decision allowed them to say the same thing about EU immigrants after 2004. But then the 2004 decision is only a mistake because newspapers weaponised it.

To his credit Jack does list among his eight reasons for Brexit the UK press, and suggests as I have done that the difference between the vote in England and Scotland owes something to the press being “far more rabid” in England. Our rabid right wing press were always going to weaponize EU immigration whenever it happened. Labour could only have delayed A8 immigration until 2011. That would still have given newspapers plenty of time to write negative stories about EU immigrants before the referendum in 2016, as they of course did in spades. As immigration from the EU between 2004 and 2011 is likely to have provided economic benefits for natives, it is not obvious that the 2004 decision was a mistake at all.


  1. What are your thoughts on the notion that the Blair government's decision was motivated by a hope that EU immigrants would replace non-EU immigrants, thus appeasing the Islamophobia unleashed by the War on Terror?

    Indigo Jo Blogs: Blair not the man to lead Brexit fightback

    1. "What are your thoughts on the notion that the Blair government's decision was motivated by a hope that EU immigrants would replace non-EU immigrants, thus appeasing the Islamophobia unleashed by the War on Terror?"

      A more likely version is IMHO that the eastward expansion of the EU was a tool to damage the Frech-German axis, the new members were pro-UK and shifted power within the EU (New Europe vs. Old Europe).

      The inherent issue was, however, that UK only performed the "destructive" act, but afterwards was not able to provide an constructive component that actually filled New Europe with life.

      Old Europe only had to wait a few years, then New Europe was silently buried, after 2010 nobody was talking about New Europe any longer.


  2. One thing I'd add is that the upsurge in immigration as an issue of public concern followed the political focus of the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act (and its 1999 successor). In the 40 years between 1950 and 1989 there were 3 immigration acts. In the 20 years between 1990 and 2009 there were 7.

    This focus was driven by the tabloid coverage in the 90s of "bogus asylum seekers", which did much to promote the "legitimate concern" of scarce resources at a time when the political parties were all pushing the false dichotomy of the deserving and the undeserving. In effect, we culturally normalised xenophobia by an appeal to economistic logic.

    This has been perpetuated by austerity and augmented by other "legitimate concerns" over cultural practices (particularly in respect of Muslims). It should hardly come as a surprise that two decades of this propaganda have corrupted public discourse to the point where the delusion of migration control probably tipped the balance in the EU referendum.

    The irony of history is that newspapers are dying, and there is good reason to hope that public discourse in the future will be less rabid, not least because the press will no longer set the agenda for other media or for politicians. Brexit looks like being their parting gift.

  3. "As immigration from the EU between 2004 and 2011 is likely to have provided economic benefits for natives....."

    The question is, which "natives" benefited from immigration and which "natives" suffered from immigration?

    Henry Rech

    1. Very few natives directly suffered from immigration. Many natives were the victims of ongoing deindustrialisation, which isn't directly linked, but happened at the same time and is easy to scapegoat onto scary foreign people if you don't want hard talks that aren't very reassuring.

  4. I think you are missing the forest for the trees here. The fact is was that it was a decision of gross hubris to go in a alone with a policy of no transition controls (on the basis of an econometric model which said there would be no inward flows). With large scale immigration already a major concern, this was the last thing any government needed. Add to this that it played to a narrative that the government did not have control over inward labour movements and the key card was given to the Brexit side.

    It concerns me again that the establishment, as seems to have been the case with the financial crisis, have not learned the lessons from this experience. It is also not clear that this has been beneficial - has it contributed to an increase in real per capita GNP? Has it encouraged the training of low income native labour? Has it contributed to community cohesion? Is the position of native non-white non-European labour in formally depressed areas improving? Has it improved labour mobility between depressed and growing regions within the United Kingdom?

    There is also probably a lot that is not in the numerical data. It would be interesting to hear the views of anthropologists and sociologists who have done the actual field work.


    1. "Has it contributed to community cohesion?"

      Areas with less immigration are, broadly, more xenophobic. It appears very much that yes, where migrants go, communities are more tolerant.

  5. Fascinating on the timing. Would just point out that it's worth looking at the Tories' populist turn on the issue at 1997. Press doesn't need party to weaponise it, but it's nonetheless crucial.

  6. If you have a policy which can be weaponised successfully by the press like this then it's a bad policy.

    The left is prepared to compromise on plenty of other things, whether it be taxes, size of the public sector, social security, labour law, etc etc and sensible people know that you have to compromise to get into power. Why should immigration policy be the exception? Cutting immigration to allay economic fears, which may be misplaced fears, is legitimate. And no, it's not xenophobic. Even Remainer opinion has shifted against immigration (mine changed when the results of the last census showed me how large Eastern European, not non-EU, immigration has been) now that they can no longer ignore it. Enough of this.

    If Labour loses the next general election, it will be because May has already cut immigration, or promised to use Brexit to do so, and Labour will not match her policy. We must not know away the chance to get the most left-wing government in 40 years just so we can pose as brave anti-racists by preserving some pointless recent net annual immigration number. Losing over this would be terribly immoral because of the avoidable suffering it would inflict on the British population.

  7. Interesting. The main thing that jumps out at me from the first graph is that concern about immigration really jumped post 2001. The 9/11 attacks and subsequent "War on Terror" (and the Afghan and Iraq wars). I suspect that anti-immigration sentiment is directly correlated to the media portrayal of Islam during this period. For immigrant, read Muslim. I suspect this view is still common amongst many who voted for Brexit.

  8. Labour's open door policy, especially its decision not to put in place transitional controls has had unintended consequences. One is that is now harder to accept refugees, for which the UK has a moral and international responsibility to do so.

    1. Very true. We only took a tiny number of Syrians. Also May is kicking out ppl who were married to Brits for decades but aren't citizens themselves, obviously a desperate attempt to get the number of foreign born down. All so we can take in hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans a year who are safe in their home countries but come here to get 2-3x higher pay.

  9. as far as I can see , non e u migration increased up to 2002 , 2003 . around this time people voiced their concerns at a significant level . you can see a very definite spike around 2003 . this increase was down to labour policy . so voters reacted to a govt policy . what was labour response ?
    ignore voters , and increase e u migration .
    why ? because the tories were unelectable , and new labour represented their own interests in govt , not the interests of working class voters , or any other voters .
    now all labour supporters need to do is throw in a bit of economics ,
    and blame the right wwing media .
    yawn . almost as tedious as watching mmt go around in circles .
    still lesson learned .
    beware twitter click bait in future .
    labour can offer nothing on immigration , apart from
    >>> don't pander to ignorant voters .
    or don't pander to thick voters duped by nasty right wing media .

  10. Thanks again, SW-L for a useful assessment. From my own conversations with my working-class friends and family. What happens is that newspaper stories for some feed and so magnify existing prejudges and start off series of confirmatory biases. This being against a backdrop of public service cuts and lower job security has created a hard to shift core of widely held erroneous beliefs. I've tried myself to shift this, using reasoned argument, and generally, I'm met with looks of, but you don't know, and your head's in the clouds. Anyone who tries to shift the beliefs of this has my sympathy. It reminds me of my attempts to convince the same group that austerity was not the right policy, interest rates and the lower bound - of these the one thing that did seem to shake people's belief was quantitative easing. It being the case most had never heard of it or did not appreciate what it involved. My guess is that the easiest way to reduce this cancer in British society is to get the economy working and working for everyone. Of course if Brexit goes through and things get worse then all will become worse, and I fear for the disabled too (another group demonised by elements of the print media).

  11. Interesting how closely the main inflection points in the trend on public concern about immigration track changes of government! It spikes in 1979 ("really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped"), declines gradually till 1990, flatlines from there till 1997 and rises steadily from 1997 to 2007. I wonder if there's a lesson there about New Labour and immigration, and more generally about the Left attempting to weaponise themes that naturally belong to the Right - the more a Left government says "we're going to deal with immigration", the more the people hear "these Leftists aren't dealing with immigration".

    1. I think this is a big part of it; by accepting something is worthy of debate, you legitimise it. The big issue is that this isn't the case for parties, but the press also. If the papers and BBC agree migration is worth discussing, the left can't just ignore it, either, or they're tone deaf as per the press who won't shut up about it.

  12. Something that puzzles me about many of my fellow lefties on the immigration issue is, they will compromise on just about any issue to get into power to do some good. Could be on taxing the rich, social security, nationalisation, other bits of foreign policy, trade unionism, whatever.

    There are plenty of policies which would be "likely to have provided economic benefits" but we don't insist on all of them and risk losing elections and let the Tories in.

    Perhaps Brown or Miliband would have won if there had been less immigration. And the delay does matter for goodness' sake! It means fewer years to build up resentment. The reason the newspapers are effective is they contain a grain of truth -- the immigration figures!

    If May manages to cut immigration after all, or to make a credible enough promise to do so after the next general election, then she can win. Jezza must match this if so. Otherwise he could indeed lose. Working people LOVE immigration control and voted 66% to leave. If May gets back in, and the Great Recession and its aftermath take away 15-20 years of people's working lives instead of just ten, people like you will have a lot to answer for, Simon.

    1. SWL I'm glad you do publish critical comments like that one unlike some bloggers I could mention who will not publish even courteously worded criticism

  13. No. If bigots don't like immigration then they can leave. Unless, of course, something happens that makes it harder for them to do so.

  14. Immigration is in some ways a proxy issue. It reveals to people where they stand in a hierarchy. It shows citizens where the government's priorities lie.

    Just so I understand where all those who moan about other people's xenophobia sit, would you all be okay with having Freedom of Movement between the EU and West Africa? Lots of smart, educated people in West Africa. Surely would be good for all concerned?


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