Immigration and Inequality: The Courage of Convictions

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This first appeared at Open Democracy

In May 2014, the victory of UKIP (the UK Independence Party) in topping European Election polls was marred only by its evident failure to make inroads in London: its candidates there secured only a 10% share of the vote. UKIP attributed this failure to the fact Londoners were “more media-savvy (and) well-educated”, continuing to insist that this population “cannot really understand the heartache and the pain that many people around the country are feeling.”

The comments were essentially an appeal two ideas that have become increasingly central in our fraught British immigration debate: first, the notion that a wealthy and disconnected metropolitan elite are oblivious to the concerns of “the people”, and second a belief that when it comes to immigration, choosing to trust in facts and figures – rather than embracing emotion and spin – somehow represents a rejection of democratic principle itself.

The result – as witnessed over the past six months – has been a UK migration debate increasingly dominated by populist proposals to limit immigration. These policies’ targets are above all low-skilled and low-wage migrants. And despite Cameron, Miliband, Farage et al. fighting viciously over the details, there is in fact wide consensus that the real issue is how best to protect our poorest and most marginalised citizens from the competition that poor migrants represent. In these terms, our immigration “problem” is fundamentally an inequality problem. The solution that follows seems logical. If we want less inequality, we need less immigration.

It seems simple. But what if the assumptions underpinning this consensus are wrong? What if the drive to restrict migration isn’t reducing poverty here, but creating a migration system that is actually exacerbating local inequality?

Like many other migration researchers who spend their working lives – and stake their professional credibility – on refuting over-simplistic lines on migration, I’ve watched frustrated as this media storm gather around the immigration issue, replete with commentators full of sound and fury, but whose words often signify nothing. And I’ve repeatedly asked the question of how – in the run-up to next May’s General Election – we can have a real conversation about migration.

So when I was sent British Future’s new publication, How to Talk About Immigration, I began reading with interest. Could this report– the culmination of three years’ work – offer some insight into how to shift towards a more positive and progressive discussion about immigration in the UK?

How to Talk About Immigration underlines some important dynamics in the UK migration debate. It reminds us that “when they talk about immigration, the public is moderate, not mad”. It finds that the numbers of “rejectionists” are actually roughly equivalent to the numbers of “migration liberals”. And it points to a silent majority that the report labels the ‘anxious middle’ – the 50% of the British population who want neither closed nor open borders, but a ‘sensible conversation’ about the impacts of immigration in their communities. In other words, there is far greater cause to hope that public debate can find its way back to the ‘moderate middle’ than is to be found in Tabloid headlines and UKIP stump speeches.

British Future is also undoubtedly right to identify the public’s fundamental distrust of politicians as arguably the major impediment to beginning a new and more constructive public conversation about migration. While policy analysts and researchers may have been predicting the implosion of net migration targets since they were introduced in 2010, it’s important to acknowledge that many segments of the public don’t see the inevitable failure of a cheap gimmick, but a broken promise. And its final set of 10 recommendations is reasoned and realistic – even if it is hardly revolutionary to call for a more humane asylum system or greater investment in integration services.

Yet I finished How to Talk About Immigration with a mounting sense of disquiet. For while British Future’s conclusion that the public space exists to craft a more measured migration conversation is to be welcomed, their advice about how we should do this is disturbing.  For How to Talk About Immigration dismisses the idea that “Migration Liberals” should deal in facts when talking to the public. It instead urges that we should “stop looking for the killer fact that will prove that the whole debate is a mistake” because “even if it did [exist], people may not believe it”.

In nearly a decade of migration research, I’ve yet to meet any pro-migration advocate who has been searching for a “killer fact”with which to end the immigration debate. Framing the migration debate in these terms – suggesting that what we need isn’t more evidence, but more emotion  – is at best a clumsy attempt to remind us that migration is not just about technocratic fixes, but about values and principles. But at worst, it reinforces UKIP’s view that facts and figures matter far less than feelings when it comes to framing immigration.

There is also an odd disjuncture between How to Talk About Immigration’s recognition that “facts should be important in policy-making”, and its parallel recommendation that when it comes to public opinion, we need to “find out what kind of conversation people want to have” and stick to this script. Yet it is precisely this gap between the rhetoric of immigration and the reality of evidence-based policy making that has alienated the public in the past. A further omission is the report’s almost total silence regarding the role of the British media, whose reporting on immigration has been found to often distort and deliberately misinform.

Yet my real objection to British Future’s report is its apparent willingness to hold up the importance of public opinion as proof of its necessary veracity. Simply saying that the majority of people believe something does not make it right. Of course democratic accountability is important – but that needs to be accompanied by political responsibility. And public opinion does not exist in a vacuum: it is shaped by those with power. What How to Talk About Immigrationsignally fails to talk about is what powerful interests shaping our existing conversations about immigration, and how we might begin to change that conversation. If the public do not trust facts and figures when it comes to migration, the right response is not to simply avoid talking about them altogether.

Yet I do think How to Talk About Immigration is right to remind us that the immigration debate won’t be won by technocratic calculations of migrants’ contributions to GDP per capita. Too often, migration advocates have argued for minor policy adjustments while allowing the “Rejectionists” to play for hearts and minds.  But there is a powerful case – both emotional and empirical – to be made for migration, a case that can be made in the language of freedom and rights, showing how migration is a means of securing progress and social justice.

My own new book, Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality, sets out to do just this. It’s clear that the fear and anxiety that many people feel when it comes to migration are real: but the evidence shows it is inequality, not immigration, which is the root cause of this unrest. In Huddled Masses, I explain why we’re wrong to assume immigration exacerbates inequality, and explore how it’s the policies we pursue in the name of protecting locals that are actually widening the gap between wealthy corporations and ordinary citizens. Carefully sifting through the data, I show how companies like G4S and Serco profit from a billion-dollar migration industry while locking their own workers into a low-wage, low-skill economy. How stringent minimum income requirements mean half of Britons no longer have the right to marry a foreigner and bring their spouse to live with them in the UK. How the UK Government – despite being a vocal opponent of EU freedom of movement – has repeatedly refused to assist the EU in efforts to crack down on the exploitation of cheap ‘posted’ migrant labour, citing the need to protect British ‘competitiveness’.

“Migration Liberals” do need to work out how to contribute more to the British migration debate. In the past twelve months, they have been very effectively portrayed as a disconnected, wealthy, metropolitan elite. But How to Talk About Immigration falls short not only because it largely suggests that “migration liberals” have only themselves to blame for this, ignoring the mathematics of electoral politics and the power of the press. A fundamental failure is the reluctance to question the assumptions that underpin our current immigration debate – that we only need high skilled workers, that immigration adds to inequality, that poor locals and poor migrants are on different sides of a zero-sum equation. The result is an “inclusive conversation” of sorts – but only within very narrow parameters.

The Huddled Masses makes clear that this isn’t enough. We need to start talking about immigration in the context of a wider conversation about the Britain we want to build, for immigration can’t be debated in a vacuum. If Britain is to be a socially just place, in which citizens have real equality of opportunity, a positive and progressive migration policy has to be part of that future. We have the empirical evidence that migration works; British Future’s report shows we also have the evidence that there is more room for public discussion than some of us might have feared. Now, to really start talking about immigration, we need only the courage of our convictions.

The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality is published as an Amazon Kindle Single in conjunction with Thistle Publishing and is available for download priced at £1.99.

How to Talk About Immigration is available for download.