Migrants in the workforce: facts v fiction

Government policy does mercifully little to affect the labour market, even if it could be doing better.

NIESR's Jonathan Portes takes the time to critique Home Office minister Mark Harper. Harper said, in a comment on last week's labour force data release:

These figures show we are building a better immigration system that works in the national interest and is supporting growth. The rise in numbers in employment has benefited British citizens first, but our system is still allowing skilled migrants to come to the UK where they are needed by British businesses.

Portes argues that the labour force survey shows no such thing. When we look at the proportions of the working age population and of people in employment who are foreign born, we find a stark correlation, and a smooth trend. The trend is slightly accelerated by the new EU member states in 2004, and temporarily stalled by the recession, but largely consistent:


As Portes writes:

It is difficult - or at least certainly far too early - to see any significant change in the long run trend here. It is therefore difficult to see how changes to the immigration system could have had any substantial impact, as yet, on the employment of the UK born.

Thankfully, if the solution is imaginary, so too is the problem. Harper is continuing a Tory meme that "new jobs go to migrants".

Here's Fraser Nelson's take on the meme, for instance:

Over the 12-month period to which Osborne refers [Q2 2010 to Q2 2011], 90.1 per cent of the extra employment amongst the working-age population can be accounted for by an increase in foreign nationals working in the UK.

As Portes points out, thought through for a couple of seconds, such a claim is clearly nonsense:

Think about where you work. How many of the last ten people who were hired were immigrants? In most workplaces, probably none, one, or two. Very roughly, about 20,000 people start a new job every working day in the UK — the vast majority were born here.

The claim is actually just a restatement of arithmetic fact. The proportion of the population which is foreign born is increasing almost as quickly as the workforce. Rephrasing that as "foreign nationals taking most jobs" is as untrue as it would be to say that between 2009 and 2011 219 per cent of new jobs were taken by disabled people.

The government's policy has little effect on the stats cited above because the government's policy has little effect on immigration. It can only fiddle at the margins, thanks to the combined pressures of EU migration and British emigration. That's not to say it can't still do a huge amount of damage, as Cameron learned to his cost when he had to go pleading to India to promise better treatment at the hands of UKBA; and if we're talking about pro-growth migration policies, there's only one, and it's more migration.

But we'll still see the same old hackneyed arguments come up tomorrow, when the immigration statistics come out. So consider this a pre-buttal. Whether or not the government has achieved its populist target of slashing net migration, it's doing mercifully little to affect the labour market, even if it could be doing better.

"So, which line is the one for the job-stealing scum and which is for patriotic Brits spreading wealth abroad?" Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.