Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 23 April 2018

A hostile environment

The received wisdom on immigration goes as follows. Growing public concern about increased immigration to the UK led the Coalition government to put in place a target for net migration, and then enact measures to achieve that target. Creating a ‘hostile environment’ to discourage immigration was part of that effort. The Windrush generation and descendants are unfortunate victims of overzealous or box ticking officials.

Almost everything in this received wisdom is wrong. Although immigration has never been popular, active concern as reflected in opinion polls increased followed the Conservative party highlighting the issue as a way to attack the then Labour government (Hague: foreign land, Howard: are you thinking what we are thinking), and more importantly an increasing number of articles in the right wing press portraying immigrants or asylum seekers in a negative light. Most people didn't think immigration was a problem locally, but they perceived it was a problem for the country as a whole. The best predictors of immigration concern was readership of the Mail, Express and Sun. 

In my post about neoliberal overreach, I listed austerity and immigration as the two ways in which the 2010 Coalition government went too far in an effort to achieve neoliberal goals. Austerity was what I call deficit deceit: using scare stories about the deficit to shrink the state. The focus on immigration with the tens of thousands target was also deceit because most of the government had no intention of achieving that target. The hostile environment policy was there for show, as part of the deceit. The 'go home' vans were meant to be seen by the public, not illegal immigrants. Most of the government knew that seriously trying to achieve their immigration target would damage the economy, but rather than tell the public this they continued the facade to take votes off Labour and UKIP. 

The facade came back to bite the Conservative government during the Brexit referendum. Cameron could not credibly start talking up the benefits of EU freedom of movement while at the same time putting policies in place that made it appear as if he was trying to hit his own immigration target, and then failing to do so. In that sense the Conservative's immigration policy created the Brexit disaster

Part of the facade of trying to hit that target was the hostile environment policy. Some ministers were right to suggest that the policy was “almost reminiscent of Nazi Germany”. To say that the policy only applied to illegal immigrants misses the key point: people were assumed guilty of being illegal until they could prove, and pay to prove, that they had a legitimate right to be here. Being assumed guilty could mean losing your job or your home. If the Home Office made a mistake, the applicant had to pay to try to put it right. If the mistake was large enough, they could be detained without trial.

What is worse, the policy entrapped landlords, employers and nurses into acting as extensions of this Home Office regime. Some, fearing the consequences of getting things wrong, were bound to be tempted to discriminate against anyone who was not white and did not have a British accent. In that sense the policy actively encouraged discrimination. But the Conservative party didn't mind, just as it didn't see any problem in conducting an Islamophobic campaign against Sadiq Kahn 

The hostile environment policy, like austerity, has ruined people’s lives. Some are Windrush, some are not. The Home Office were warned about how the policy was entrapping innocent people in 2014, but did nothing. Rudd and May could see what the policy was doing to innocent people caught in their net, and they made no attempt to change anything. They only acknowledged problems when they were forced to by public opinion. [1]

Like austerity, the Conservative party’s focus on immigration seemed like a useful political tactic at the time, as well as playing to the xenophobic elements in the party’s base. Like austerity, the policy started to do real harm to innocent people, yet the leadership showed no inclination to dilute or abandon their policy. While Cameron and Osborne could see that the immigration target was only there for show, they had given the responsibility of achieving it to someone who didn’t get the deceit. Worse still, Theresa May seemed quite happy with any collateral damage as she stubbornly pursued the impossible.

So austerity and the hostile environment continue, because the Chancellor and Prime Minister respectively are committed to these policies, and seem indifferent to the consequences until forced to undertake partial palliatives. This is why I called both policies neoliberal overreach. Past Labour leaderships have unfortunately felt they had to tag along with both or suffer electoral costs. Liberal Democrats were part of the government that enacted both. The media helped construct or went along with narratives that made both policies seem essential. But there was a small group of Labour MPs who opposed both policies on principle, and continue to do so. Is it any wonder that it is they who now lead the opposition party? Is it any wonder that the political and media consensus that enacted neoliberal overreach will do anything they can to prevent that group gaining power?

[1] The same public opinion that supposedly was clamouring for policies to control immigration. It is sometimes said that most people dislike immigration not immigrants. When confronted (thanks to persistent strong journalism) with the human consequences of anti-immigration policy on actual immigrants, the public pull back. Most of the public lack the ideological zeal and indifference to its human consequences of many of their political leaders.


  1. reggie kittiwake23 April 2018 at 03:36

    If preventing free migration of labour has now become 'neoliberal' that's just more evidence that the term has become meaningless.

    1. I agree, but that is not what I meant. An anti-immigration stance was a means towards a political end. So was deficit deceit. There is nothing neoliberal about fiscal contraction at the zero lower bound either.

  2. Thank you for the excellent post. I was almost completely ignorant about the issue, but was able to follow your very clear explanation and convincing argument. I have only a minor pedantic semantic objection.

    I don't think that the hostile environment policy is properly called neoliberal. I think the free market/laissez faire approach would be to allow unrestricted immigration. In particular the hostile environment policy consisted of increased state intervention in society.

    It was right wing over-reach, but of a sort rejected by anyone who ever had any reason to call him or herself a liberal. Adam Smith & Juhn Stuart Mill, and Milton Friedman would have opposed the policy (so, I think, would Friedrich Hayek although I am less sure that he, who immigrated twice, was pro-immigration).

    The fact that the Liberal party has betrayed neo-liberalism is nothing new -- it is now acting as a junior conservative party after having been a social democratic party.

    1. Thanks for raising a point that I should have addressed. I did say that the leaders of the Conservative party before May never seriously tried to reduce immigration. That they presided over a large increase in immigration meant that they were true to their neoliberal ideology.

      The deceit was pretending the opposite. That was the overreach.

    2. It's interesting that Adam Smith used the phrase "invisible hand" not in connection with a mechanism that reconciles self interest with community benefit but in an entirely different sense.

      He says that many entrepreneurs could produce cheaper abroad but do not do so because they know that this would cause unemployment and they have an instinctive "home bias" and it is this bias that is the "invisible hand".

      Immigration turns this argument around but it's quite possible that Smith would have opposed immigration for the same reason, that is that it could deny work to the natives.

  3. This has been a direction of travel for at least 11 years and to make it entirely party political a conceit.

    It excuses nothing since but Philip Woolas appearances and comments even prior to his disgrace, not least his diary of the 2010 election published in the Independent, was curdling even for someone long hating of the whole New Labour project. That he was immigration minister and initially re-appointed by Miliband to shadow hardly shows that Labour's leaders were not in tune with the tenor of public debate and indeed trying as they did to get out in front of it with Clintonesque triangulation.

    2016 and beyond Yvette Cooper reinvented as chief fan of unaccompanied minors (like the obsession with 'child' poverty new Labourites think it fair to do good things if you're under 16 but adults on their own). However her strident attacks on May for not defending the border from 2010 for a few years cannot have but helped the bidding up process that led us here. I would invoke Godwin's law when discussing her statements and stridency TBH.

    Not to mention their distastful foreign policy which is happy to sell weapons to our then bigoted Saudi enemies and any third world brutes. The nadir sending people to Gaddafi for torture that led to later Conservative Hague grovelling on national TV to our 'friend' and chief murderer and torturer Musa Kusa just a kicker. Seriously what did that scumbag have on the UK?

    That their initial policy was multiculturalism again a deceit that was in many ways the opposite of multi-cultural even if not quite a deliberate ghettoising and toleration of religious bigotry that some paint.

    Given 500 MPs are Conservatives or new Labs let's not try to pretend what the prevailing feelings of MPs are.

  4. "In that sense the Conservative's immigration policy created the Brexit disaster."

    No it wasn't. It was naive to believe that you could have such a dramatic and sudden increase in immigration and not expect political consequences. If there was not a financial crisis, a tory government and austerity, well then maybe the large increase in immigration which has not increased GNP per capita may not have been a big enough problem to tip the balance of the referendum. But, in a country where large parts of it did not prosper under the so-called Great Moderation, with problems that have run very deep, a dramatic increase in labour inflows of the type we saw was a provocative move. It is also not true that immigration is only high where there a strong anti-mass immigration sentiment has emerged. You cannot make that generalisation. Moreover, the view that the policy makers have left much of Britain down does not have to necessarily correlate with immigrants going into those areas in particular - rather it reinforces the belief that metropolitan areas don't believe that charity starts at home and are not interested in the hinterlands.

    The sad thing is that the silly advice and projections of economists before the eastern EU expansion has ultimately made immigration an issue. The dysfunctional Home Office is now in an even more impossible position - it has to get numbers down when it can't. The decision not to put in transitional controls was the consequence of using models, and not doing field work. It would not have taken much. Most likely if you landed at Warsaw airport in the early 2000s you would find the taxi driver was planning to move to the UK, and if not he would have certainly known many people who intended to do so. The projection of no movement was preposterous - but probably politically driven.

    This is what led to Brexit.

  5. "The best predictors of immigration concern was readership of the Mail, Express and Sun"

    (How do I put that in italics to show that it's a quote?)

    In all the coverage of immigration on TV or radio, never once I have heard the above sentence uttered. The power of the UK's large right-wing press, its ability to insert "facts" into the public's mind and to influence elections is only ever discussed on out-of-the-way blogs.

  6. Of course you are absolutely right. Another excellent analysis.

    The interesting and unsurprising news in the ‘Indepenent’ today is of Matt Hancock’s nervousness that the Mirtor Group wishes to acquire the Express and a couple of other titles. His concern is about maintaining the plurality of our newspapers! You couldn’t make it up!!!!

  7. Thanks for an excellent, clear, post.
    You talk about restricting immigration as “damaging the economy”. This is, perhaps, a rather emotive way of phrasing it. I assume you mean that restricting immigration would cause the economy to grow less fast than without restriction. But the size of the economy is not necessarily the key issue for many people already resident. One aspect is whether existing residents are better off. One might debate whether the increased growth due to immigration actually improves the welfare of existing citizens (e.g. through changes to wage growth). And one might also debate whether immigration increases or decreases inequality (sadly I suspect that immigration increases inequality). But the key point is that the size of the economy is not necessarily the key issue. The per capital size of the economy might be a better indicator. But even then there are other issues such as whether existing residents welcome the increase in population density and other externalities. I guess to an economist the economy seems paramount. However, to ordinary citizens other factors, not zenophobia, may also be, or may be more important than a modest increase in their wealth (if that even is the result of immigration). So, when discussing immigration, please also consider that there are other non-economic factors, not xenophobia, which may be of relevance and may lead people to prefer a slower rate.

  8. I think it's easy to overplay how austere Miliband/Balls were. The IFS found that the targets could be made with as little as £1bn of cuts. That's £1bn too much, of course, but it's what the NAO found Gove had overspent on free school vanity projects.

    I welcome the work you did on the new fiscal rule. I just think we can go too far in lumping New Labour in with the failed consensus.

  9. It goes without saying these are awful policies. But is Windrush a watershed? I'm not sure. As you say, Labour is led by a group of politicians who got the issue dead right.

    No polls for a few days, but May is up and Corbyn down. No obvious boon for Labour v Tories either.

  10. Anyone with any sense of decency can see from their recent attempts that they thought everything was going neatly to plan, the idea that this was a harmless attempt to tackle a problem that by any stretch of the imagination, did not exist. The idea that this issue merited such draconian action as this, belies the fact that fear is something the Tories like to instill in people, frightened people tend to become submissive, and less likely to stand up for themselves.

    This is all part of the grand scheme, looking tough beating up the weak and vulnerable. A particularly nasty trait in Tories.

    People are dying on our streets because of the deliberate policies attacking the most vulnerable in our country, homelessness is increasing, immigrants of course were blamed for this crisis, whilst the mass media overlook this governments pernicious policies.

    The Neo-Liberal bit is where the Tories sold off council housing and allowed (Thatcher's economic rents) to explode, as wages were falling, creating the disaster we currently have, saying there is a shortage of houses, i.e. not enough being built, when there are plenty of empty houses about, but some people can't afford to buy or rent.

    Chaos is all part of political strategy, incoherent policies create the conditions where people give up in despair not knowing what to think. The ultimate objective of these Tories is though quite clear, cling on long enough to hand our democracy (what is called democracy) over to the corporate sector, do a deal with Trump to enshrine Neo-Liberal doctrines firmly into place, and then retire to the boardrooms of multi national corporations, ignoring the plight of the rest of us.

    These plans were laid long ago and here is the evidence:

  11. «people were assumed guilty of being illegal until they could prove, and pay to prove, that they had a legitimate right to be here.»

    That happens pretty much in every country: residence and citizenship are a matter of law like in the UK and applying for them, or not, is a free decision of the person involved.
    The alternative is absurd: granting residence and citizenship automatically even to people who haven't asked for it, unless the government can prove that they are not entitled to them.

    The photogenic jamaican oldies at the epicentre of the most recent "moral outrage campaign" have not asked, not once in 40 years, to be legal residents or to become citizens, and when travelling abroad they have done so on their jamaican passport, which of course they must have applied for recently because passports expire, even if they never applied for UK residence or citizenship. And they have kept records and files to prove their entitlement to a jamaican passport, because the jamaican consulate does not issue a passport to anybody unless the consulate can prove that they are not jamaican citizens.

    Possible (and even maybe likely) reasons why these photogenic jamaican oldies kept records and papers to apply for jamaican passports but not for UK residence or citizenship:

    * Many have been part of the "informal" economy, therefore they cannot produce any records of being employed and paying taxes or NI contributions in the UK, but they have kept birth and family certificate from Jamaica.
    * Many had no intention of wasting money on something that they did not need. Now that are at an age where they need the paperwork to get a free pension and free NHS treatment, they don't want to pay the fee.

    Consider EU immigrants for comparison: they have been coming to work entirely legally and with paperwork in order since 1973, that's 45 years ago, and now that the "permanent" treaties that gave them that legal right have been ended by the UK, they are applying in large numbers paying large fees handing over 5 years of records for residence or citizenship.

    Suppose that soon the "moral outrage" pressure mean any photogenic jamaican citizen oldies get residence or citizenship without 5 years of records and without paying any fee:

    * What would prevent every jamaican family in the UK from inviting over their over-65 relatives from Jamaica to get no-questions-asked residence or citizenship and thus enjoy free pensions and free NHS for the rest of their lives?

    * Why should ugly (or not) EU citizens of the same age be discriminated against by having to provide 5 years of records of being employed and paying taxes plus a large application fee to get the same residence or citizenship?

  12. Prof I can see what you are against, but I'm just not sure what you are for. Are you in favour of absolutely no limits on immigration at all? And will anyone in the UK have access to full public services and public housing without them having to provide evidence of entitlement? And if you are not in favour of complete openness but favour restrictions of one form or another, then aren't you going to end up in the same place as now with checks on entitlement and deportations, and mistakes because no system is perfect?

  13. Simon,
    there is one thing where we seem to disagree. It may appear to be a small technicality, but if I'm right, it isn't, because it snowballs.

    You do understand the crucial point:
    Cameron could not credibly start talking up the benefits of EU freedom of movement while at the same time putting policies in place that made it appear as if he was trying to hit his own immigration target, and then failing to do so. In that sense the Conservative's immigration policy created the Brexit disaster.

    The principle here is: in politics, if you put in place policies for A, based on lie L, you stop being able to "change your mind" and say "oh, yes, now I see that L is false". Once policies are enacted, the political cost of admitting their rationale was wrong becomes too big: (metaphorical) heads roll each time this happens. Our (presumed) disagreement comes from my impression that you are consistently failing to see how this principle applies to current Labour leadership.

    Here is Corbyn, in March:
    As democratic socialists we respect the result of the referendum
    We cannot be held back [...] from preventing employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy

    He is (almost?) buying into the "will of the people" nonsense, and fully buying into the anti-immigration rhetoric. It might have been a reversible stance, if he weren't enacting policy on this basis. Problem is that he is making policy decisions on this basis, and, despite being in opposition, these decisions have real-world consequences (Art.50, anyone?). So the mechanism above applies, it did limit what Cameron could do and say, it WILL limit what Corbyn can do and say.

    This is why the current Corbyn's position is both wrong and dangerous (for him personally and for the future of Labour): by accepting 2 lies (First: the idea that a unique "will of the people" exists, is manifested by the absurd referendum and *must* be respected. Second: the idea of big, generalised and negative effect of immigration on wages/quality of life) AND acting upon it, he makes it harder (costly, in political terms) to revert to policies based on reality. This is how you sleepwalk into self destruction.

    Ask Cameron or Clegg, if in doubt.

    The sooner Labour's leaderships will understand all this, the smaller the damage made.

  14. In Amber Rudd's first Conservative Party Conference speech, in 2016, she demanded the 'naming-and-shaming' of companies which employed foreign workers.
    It wasn't long, however, before the government dropped the idea.

    I believe that one of the reasons for this was that somebody pointed out that Premier League football clubs would have been on the list as major employers of immigrants.

    It would not do to have millions of football fans reminded that the massive amount of money generated by the Premier League owed a lot to the contribution made by immigrant players.

    Don't forget, the Conservative narrative was that immigrants were supposed to be a drag on the economy not a driver of it.


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