Immigration is a boon for society, and the EU should be praised for encouraging it

Populist rhetoric is hurting Britain, writes Petros Fassoulas.

If there is one thing that the British tabloid press and populist politicians (and many others besides) get exercised with and enjoy exaggerating about even more than the EU, it's immigration. No less during a time of economic crisis when scapegoats and easy answers are on high demand.

Immigration has been a cause célèbre for the coalition since coming to power. Promises to cut numbers of immigrants, attacking foreign students, even questioning the free movement of people in the EU have been employed to appease and at the same time fuel populist sentiments. It is also used as a stick to attack the UK’s membership of the EU, which is blamed for any perceived or real increase of immigrants. Rhetoric against immigration and the EU alike has been rife recently and it has been further inflamed because Bulgarian and Romanian citizens (whose countries joined the EU in 2007) are to be given access to the British labour market at the end of the year. Senior Conservative Ministers are already creating an atmosphere of speculation around the notion that such a move will produce negative effects.

But as it’s often the case with populist causes and tabloid obsessions the facts are widely ignored. Take the charge that immigrants come here to pillage Britain’s generous welfare system, for example. Figures from an IMF Working Paper collated as recent as 2011 paint an interesting picture. When measuring the gross replacement rates (the ratio of unemployment benefits a worker receives relative to the worker’s last gross earning) in the first year of unemployment across the world, Britain fares remarkably poorly. As one works his way down this table he quickly realises that our welfare system does not look all that generous, does it?

 

Country

Gross Replacement Rate, year 1 Ranking
Netherlands 0.7 1
Switzerland 0.687 2
Sweden 0.685 3
Portugal 0.65 4
Spain 0.635 5
Norway 0.624 6
Algeria 0.612 7
Taiwan 0.6 8
Ukraine 0.56 9
Italy 0.527 10
Denmark 0.521 11
Russia 0.505 12
Tunisia 0.5 13
Finland 0.494 14
France 0.479 15
Bulgaria 0.473 16
Canada 0.459 17
Romania 0.45 18
Hong Kong 0.41 19
Austria 0.398 20
Belgium 0.373 21
Argentina 0.354 22
Germany 0.353 23
Greece 0.346 24
Azerbaijan 0.338 25
Egypt 0.329 26
Venezuela 0.325 27
Belarus 0.313 28
Israel 0.307 29
Japan 0.289 30
United States 0.275 31
Kyrgyzstan 0.255 32
New Zealand 0.254 33
Latvia 0.253 34
India 0.25 38
Korea, South 0.25 37
Uruguay 0.25 36
Uzbekistan 0.25 35
Ireland 0.238 39
Hungary 0.235 40
Poland 0.226 41
Czech Republic 0.225 42
Australia 0.21 43
Turkey 0.206 44
Albania 0.202 45
United Kingdom 0.189 46
Brazil 0.152 47
Estonia 0.132 48
Lithuania 0.117 49
Chile 0.115 50
Georgia 0.09 51

 

It is hard to imagine that the hoards of Romanians and Bulgarians the Tories, UKIP and the right-wing press fear about will ignore pretty much every other country in the EU just to come here. Their narrative would have been a tiny bit more believable if at least the weather in Old Albion was a tad better.

Another popular charge against immigrants is that “they” are a burden on Britain’s welfare system. Again, the facts seem to disagree. A study by Christian Dustman, from the UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, found that in the year to April 2009 workers from Eastern Europe contributed £1.37 in taxes for every £1 of services they used. Native Britons on the other hand contributed just 80 pence for every pound of services they consumed. So, far from being a burden to our welfare system, immigrant workers make a considerable contribution to it.

What about the issue of unemployment and the way immigration impacts upon it?  Rhetoric tends to focus, especially during periods of economic contraction, on how immigrants force native Britons off the job market. But that is not necessarily the case, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research analysed the impact of immigration on the UK labour market using National Insurance registrations by foreign nationals and concluded that “there is no association between migrant inflows and claimant unemployment”. Furthermore, the NIESR tested for “whether the impact of migration on unemployment varies according to the state of the economic cycle and found no evidence of a greater negative impact during periods of low growth or the recent recession”. 

Apart from ignoring the facts and being based on scaremongering and scapegoating, the current rhetoric on immigration and the free movement of people in the EU gives the impression of a nation ready to raise the drawbridge and close itself off from the rest of the world. As a result it strands talented students and skilled labour overseas. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, warned that it is “making it difficult for universities and the City to attract talent from abroad”. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, went even further when she said, among other things, that the flurry of recent statements by senior ministers calling for a crackdown on "bogus students" had given the impression that overseas students were no longer welcome and was driving them towards competitor countries such as the US, Canada and Australia.

The Guardian newspaper quoted a study by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which found that “overseas students are estimated to bring £8bn a year into the economy, a figure projected to rise to £16.8bn by 2025, according to a study”. Not a negligible sum, and one that the government’s rhetoric and policies risk jeopardising.

Immigration is neither a burden on our welfare system nor a threat to the domestic workforce, certainly not in the scale implied by certain politicians and newspapers. On the contrary, immigrants, who often take up job natives do not desire (the social care sector being a prime example) make a significant contribution to the economy (by spending on goods and services in this country and contributing to national GDP), the taxation and welfare system, the talent pool available in the labour market and last but not least the cultural wealth of Britain. Instead of demonising them we should be celebrating the role they play in this country.

Update:

Removed a paragraph incorrectly implying other countries had not yet opened their labour markets up to Romania and Bulgaria.

Photograph: Getty Images

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.