Capping benefits for migrants could serve to drive down wages for all

Forcing migrants into whatever work's going will render exploitation a breeze.

From an economic point of view, it's difficult to assess David Cameron's proposal to limit the amount of social support migrants from the EU can receive. Migration is a nearly unqualified positive to a nation's economy, but those positives generally rely on the point that migrants are likely to be in work and a net contributor to the public purse – more likely, in fact, than native Britons. But the premise of the new policy is that it doesn't affect those "good" migrants. So what to think of it?

Firstly, the background. Immigration is a boon to society, and immigration from the EU is no different. A study by UCL's Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration finds that in 2008/9, workers from Eastern Europe contributed £1.37 in taxes for every £1 of services they used, while native Britons contributed 80p to the pound. Migrants represent about 13 per cent of all workers but only 7 per cent of all benefit claimants. Liberalising immigration worldwide could result in a 116 per cent increase in wages overnight.

But arguments in favour of Britain alone opening its borders tend to focus on one very specific benefit of migration. Almost by definition, the foreigners who arrive on our shores seeking work are among the most motivated, richest, and capable members of their nations; as a result, they tend to be a net bonus to the British economy. (Even if you control for characteristics like age, education, children and disability, the UCL study still found that Eastern European migrants were less likely to claim benefits).

But David Cameron's plan is to ban EU nationals "from claiming most benefits after six months in the UK unless they can prove they have been continuously looking for work over that period", according to the Guardian's Patrick Wintour. Since the vast majority of migrants don't claim benefits, and the advantage of migration is frequently attributed to the fact that migrants are more frequently in work, how could this backfire?

On the face of it, it couldn't, because it's largely an empty policy. Cracking down on issues which have a disproportionate public profile is the bread-and-butter of immigration politics. In this way, Cameron's idea follows in the tradition of Ed Miliband's requirement that public sector workers speak English (they overwhelmingly do, as do 99.73 per cent of people living in England and Wales) and Gordon Brown's decision to "suspend" low skilled migration in 2008 despite the fact that it had been practically suspended since 2004. A lot of fuss over something which "fixes" problems which people think they have about immigration.

But there will be effects nonetheless. Because while few migrants claim state aid, the social safety net has an effect on people in work as well. The harsher life is for an unemployed person, the more power employers have over employees. A crucial part of economic life is the ability to tell your employer to go shove it if they treat you badly, and go and find a better job. That keeps the employer/employee relationship more equitable than it might otherwise be, and ensures better treatment for all – even those who would never have the courage to walk out themselves.

There is some evidence that, at the lower levels of pay, migration does drive wages down. The best response to that is through redistribution, rather than a cap; if migration grows the economy by more than it drives wages down, then a redistributionist state can make everyone better off. But Cameron's cap will serve, at the margin, to drive wages for migrants lower still, by forcing them to take jobs at conditions that native workers, without the pressure of starvation after six months, might not do. And since everyone is competing for the same jobs, that will push wages for native workers lower too.

The macroeconomy of that policy might still end up being a positive, because exploitation of labourers is good for the bottom line. But it doesn't seem like the sort of economy which Cameron wants to run.

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.

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories