By blaming immigration, Labour risks confusing voters further

Ed Balls was right to say that Labour was wrong about immigration, but we must be careful to stick t

The voice of Ed Balls is the latest addition to an ever-growing chorus within Labour commenting on the impact of immigration on the party's electoral fortunes. The emerging conclusion is Labour went too far with immigration.

Balls wrote an article for the Observer titled "We were wrong to allow so many eastern Europeans into Britain". The piece concludes:

There have been real economic gains from the arrival of young, hard-working migrants from eastern Europe over the past six years. But there has also been a direct impact on the wages, terms and conditions of too many people -- in communities ill-prepared to deal with the reality of globalisation, including the one I represent.

The result was, as many of us found in the election, our arguments on immigration were not good enough . . . In retrospect, Britain should not have rejected transitional controls on migration from the first wave of new EU member states in 2004, which we were legally entitled to impose.

Balls is right that Labour was wrong -- but the fault lies not with the decision to open our labour markets to the accession states. It is instead pretty much everything else preceding and following that decision which was wrong, including much of the subsequent analysis.

It's worth noting that, according to recent statistics, eastern Europeans account for roughly 1.5 per cent of the working-age population. The proposition that this tiny minority of the population had such a significant impact on the wages, terms and conditions of "too many people" just doesn't stand up.

Of course, immigration could, in theory, reduce wages and conditions by increasing the supply of labour. But the economy in reality has responded to immigration by increasing the demand for labour.

Benefits

The question of the impact of immigration on wages has been thoroughly researched. Though conclusions differ, the overall view can be summed up in the following terms: overall, immigration has not had statistically significant effects on wages or unemployment either one way or the other.

Factors such as education, trade, outsourcing, demographic change and outsourcing all affect wages and employment much more than immigration.

Where negative effects on wages have occurred, they tend to have been experienced by previous immigrants, especially those with limited English language skills; manual workers in jobs that do not require proficiency in English; individuals on benefits or those otherwise marginalised in the labour force.

However, these studies do not take into account that these very same workers have also benefited from low prices and low inflation. They have also gained employment through the relocation of companies on account of the easing of immigration restrictions more generally.

Consider, for example, the evidence from the Migration Advisory Committee that Japanese companies such as Hitachi, Honda and Mitsubishi would have had to scale back their operations significantly if they had been prevented from recruiting Japanese workers. On average, for every one Japanese national, these companies employ 73 UK residents.

This being the case, it seems clear that the imposition of transitional measures on movement by the first wave of EU member states would not have dealt with the problems encountered by the constituents to whom Balls alludes.

Nor, it seems, would a further extension of the current restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.

On the other hand, however, better training and education, better provision of English language teaching, reforming the benefits system, enhancing and enforcing labour standards for all workers, and eliminating labour-market discrimination would.

Proxy issue

So, why the antagonistic electorate? It is correct that globalisation and rising immigration result in transformation of communities, and indeed challenge their very identity. It would also be fair to say that the arrival of eastern Europeans in numbers that by recent UK standards are large did generate these sorts of feelings among some parts of the electorate.

The job of government, however, is not to sit back and simply point out that this is a regrettable fact of life -- as Labour did -- but rather to prepare societies for these sorts of transitions.

In this respect, Labour's performance was no more than an abject failure. At no point did it engage the electorate on the issue. It never explained the kinds of transformations that could be expected to take place in communities up and down the UK. It did not address the national impacts. Nor did it ever in advance speak meaningfully about the numbers of people who might be involved.

Labour also failed to put in place effectively the necessary social infrastructure, or a contingency plan for one in the event that its predictions of the numbers involved were exceeded (as turned out to be the case).

Migrants are not simply units of production, but human beings with human needs -- including needs for public services. Given that immigration is a proxy in particular for issues such as public services, Labour's failure to invest here, particularly with regard to affordable housing, was entirely unhelpful.

Of course, the party's failure to communicate the multiple benefits that migration has brought the UK also represents a great failing. Where were the speeches about increased investment and trade, reduced inflation, benign fiscal benefits, plugging skills shortages and increases in GDP per capita?

This was coupled by Labour's failure more generally to explain coherently its system for immigration control and the various mechanisms that existed to prioritise the interests of nationals: for instance, the resident labour-market test, applicable to non-EU nationals, and limitations on access to the welfare state and public housing by non-nationals more generally.

Its token acknowledgement here and there of the benefits of migration was insufficient, drowned out by its rather louder tough talk about immigrants.

The void arising from this was rapidly filled by groups such as MigrationWatch and the right-wing press. These groups have been remarkably successful in grossly exaggerating the scale of immigration and downplaying the multiple positives of immigration while focusing purely on its negatives.

The result was the manufacturing of perceptions by the electorate about issues such as wages, employment and public services which are simply at variance with the evidence.

The true failing in all of this is not the decision to expand certain types of immigration to the UK, but rather the cack-handed way in which our politicians dealt with it. The Labour leadership contenders and the current government would do well to take note.

Hina Majid is director of policy at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.