Osborne surfaces as Duncan Smith petition passes 100,000 signatures

A rare speech from the submarine Chancellor as more than 118,000 people challenge his cabinet colleague to live on £53 a week.

With the government under fire on welfare, the submarine Chancellor has surfaced. George Osborne will give a rare speech today attacking the "vested interests" opposed to welfare reform while boasting that the changes announced in the Budget mean that 90 per cent of working households (around 14m households) will be better off by an average of £300 a year. Osborne's figures, however, do not include unemployed families (a jobless couple without children will lose around £150 a year) and Labour is rightly pointing to the fact that the average family will be £891 worse off a year as a result of the cumulative effect of tax and benefit changes introduced since 2010.

Expect Ed Balls and co. to also take yet another opportunity to remind voters that the biggest tax cut of all has gone to the highest earners. The reduction in the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p this Saturday will benefit the UK's 13,000 income millionaires by an average of £100,769 a year and all high earners by at least £42,000. Whether or not they accept the economic logic behind the tax cut, an increasing number of Tory MPs recognise that it has made every austerity measure that much harder to justify.

Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith's claim that he could live on £53 a week (fisked by Alex yesterday) has given every journalist in the land a licence to ask the Work and Pensions Secretary's colleagues whether they could match his frugality. Treasury minister Greg Clark told Radio 5 Live this morning that anyone earning "the comfortable wage" that an MP has would "certainly struggle" to live on that amount and Osborne can expect to be asked the same question if and when he takes questions after his speech to Morrisons workers.

The petition challenging Duncan Smith to "prove his claim" has garnered more than 118,000 signatures - in excess of the 100,000 required to trigger a debate in Parliament (although it was not put forward for consideration). And the Chancellor's dubious description of the benefits system as "generous" (prompting the inevitable rejoinder: have you tried living on £71 a week?) means he is vulnerable to similar scorn. 

George Osborne leaves number 11 Downing Street in central London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.