The right tries to blame youth unemployment on immigration -- again

MigrationWatch has been allowed to get away with irresponsible scaremongering for too long.

Eighteen months ago, MigrationWatch published a report which attempted to show a relationship between immigration and youth unemployment in different parts of the UK. The methodology was comprehensively demolished here by my IPPR colleague Sarah Mulley -- but not before the report had generated the desired round of headlines such as "Migrants rob young Britons of jobs".

Today, as the nation worries about a "lost generation" with over a million young people unemployed, and an increasing proportion out of work for more than a year, MigrationWatch are at it again, with another report: Youth unemployment and immigration: more than a coincidence.

The report takes two dates -- 2004, when Eastern Europeans started coming to the UK in large numbers after the expansion of the European Union, and 2011. It notes that over this period in the UK, the number of Eastern European workers rose by around 600,000, while the number of unemployed young people rose by around 450,000. The head of MigrationWatch, Andrew Green, then comments that:

Correlation is not causation but when the two statistics are placed side by side most objective people would consider it a very remarkable coincidence if there was no link at all between them.

And while the report rambles on for another six pages, that's really about it. MigrationWatch have clearly learned the lesson of their last attempt: the more detail there is in their report, the easier it is for people who actually understand statistics or economics to show them up. Why bother, if simply asserting that the two numbers are suspiciously similar is enough to have the desired effect?

To anyone who is actually interested in how immigration affects our labour market, there is a good deal of high quality research on the subject: a useful review of the literature can be found here. In summary, while some studies have found some impact on wages, particularly towards the bottom of the wage distribution, hardly any studies have found any significant impact on overall unemployment. (Coincidentally, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research is publishing another report today, in the first major study to look at National Insurance Number data to examine the same issue.)

I don't wish to duplicate this body of research, nor get too deep into the detail of economic modelling; so I will confine myself to highlighting three points, which demonstrate the total inadequacy of MigrationWatch's report.

First, the choice of dates. MigrationWatch's chosen start-date is 2004. That is understandable, in the sense that it is when large scale Eastern European migration to the UK began. But it hides the fact that youth unemployment clearly started rising before that, around 2002 (see here). If immigration caused unemployment, you would expect to see immigration starting to rise first, followed by youth unemployment. In fact, it is the other way round. (Some readers might be tempted to reply that other kinds of immigration were rising before 2004. But while this is true, it can't help MigrationWatch, because those other kinds of immigration started rising in the late 1990s, after which point youth unemployment continued to fall for five years.)

Second, the fact that MigrationWatch focus on the change in the two variables across the whole period. This makes the numbers look at least vaguely similar. But what happens if you look in slightly more detail within the chosen period? If MigrationWatch's hypothesis was right, you would expect to see the steepest increase(s) in youth unemployment at the same time as, or shortly after, the big increase(s) in immigration. But here too, the picture is the opposite: the big increase in youth unemployment came in 2008 and 2009, during the recession caused by the financial crisis (that being a clue to what might really be going on), which was precisely the time when net immigration from Eastern Europe fell close to zero (see fig 2.2 here. To be fair to MigrationWatch, this is plainly visible in the graph on p.2 of their report, though it isn't mentioned in the report or in the press notice sent to the media.)

Third, the lack of any attempt to test the correlation across different parts of the UK, or across different countries. Of course, as I have already pointed out, when in a previous report MigrationWatch did try to show that the correlation held across different parts of the UK, it was an embarrassing failure. What about other countries? It looks unlikely that there is any correlation here: the countries in the 'old' EU which have seen the steepest rises in youth unemployment since 2004, including Spain and Greece, have not had very high levels of migration from Eastern Europe; while Germany, which has had relatively high migration from Poland (despite maintaining transitional controls for the longest possible period), has relatively low youth unemployment.

Given the contents of the report, its title -- More than a coincidence? -- is almost funny. But in the end, yet another media intervention, designed to generate a round of headlines (in the Express, Telegraph, and Sun, and on the BBC) blaming historically high youth unemployment on foreigners, isn't funny at all. It is irresponsible and pernicious, as well as a distraction from the serious debate over practical measures to alleviate youth unemployment -- including IPPR's proposal of a job guarantee for those out of work for more than a year.

Britain clearly has a youth unemployment problem: one which started before the financial crisis, but has since risen to critical levels. But its causes are too complex to be reduced to blaming immigration, just as the effects of immigration on the labour market are too complex to be reduce to the endlessly repeated headlines about "foreigners taking all the new jobs". New migrants compete for jobs with existing residents, but they also fill gaps, make our labour market more flexible, and bring energy and creativity, all of which promote growth -- meaning more jobs to go around. The net effect of all of this on the overall economy is hard to assess, but most economists agree it is positive. The net effect on different groups within the economy is even harder to assess. Again, for most, it will be positive -- though not for all. But this needs careful research, and honest presentation, not the kind of scaremongering which the media has let MigrationWatch get away with for too long.

Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @matt_cav_

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.