Neither side told the truth about immigration in the EU referendum campaign

Remain refused to speak of the benefits of increasing immigration. Leave refused to speak of the costs of reducing it. 

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In the record store of politics, Euroscepticism was long to be found in the “alternative” section. The UK voted by 67 per cent to 33 to remain in the EEC in 1975. Six years later, Labour endorsed immediate withdrawal but at the next general election it endured its worst result since 1918. In 1997, James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party won just 2.6 per cent of the vote and disbanded soon afterwards. William Hague’s call to “save the pound” in 2001 did not save him. When David Cameron told his party five years later to stop “banging on about Europe”, he was offering sound psephological advice.

But at the start of this decade, the EU’s opponents came up with a hit record: immigration. It was this issue that enabled Ukip’s ascent and, more than any other, spooked Cameron into offering a referendum. As the New Statesman went to press, a victory for Remain appeared likely but far from certain. Were it not for immigration, the outcome would not have been in doubt.

At the outset of the campaign, a strategist for Vote Leave told me that it would adopt a “full-spectrum” approach. Rather than focusing narrowly on immigration, the Brexiters vowed to make a liberal and internationalist case for withdrawal. It was a commitment institutionalised in the separation between Leave.EU (backed by Nigel Farage) and Vote Leave (backed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove). But as the campaign progressed, liberals looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and could no longer tell which was which.

On 19 June, Gove declared that he had “shuddered” when he saw Ukip’s “breaking point” poster, which sinisterly depicts a lengthy queue of refugees. But many similarly bridled at the Vote Leave leaflets that misleadingly claimed: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU.” Only last year Gove argued on Question Time, “Our country has succeeded in the past by being open, by being inclusive.” He lamented: “The debate on immigration has been poisoned by those who say we should pull up the barriers.” Yet during the campaign, he warned that immigration represented “a direct and serious threat to our public services, standard of living and ability to maintain social solidarity”. Uncomfortably for those on the Remain side, many voters agreed with him. It was by presenting Brexit as an even less tolerable outcome, rather than arguing for immigration, that they responded.

Most members of the public want fewer immigrants. For years, politicians have struggled either to appease this demand or to appear to do so. Cameron pledged to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year, a level not seen since the early 1990s. As the Prime Minister was daily reminded during the referendum campaign, it stands at 333,000. Cameron’s response was to argue that the planned welfare reforms, which would bar EU migrants from claiming in-work benefits for four years, would make “a big difference”. Yet there is little evidence that they will.

Few, if any, base their decision to emigrate on a comparative assessment of European welfare systems. Most migrants enter the UK to work, not to claim, and the financial benefits from doing so will endure. The new National Living Wage, which is expected to rise to £9 by 2020, has given the UK one of the highest guaranteed minimums in the world. Cameron’s insistence that his benefits ban would have a deterrent effect raised expectations that he can only disappoint. At other times, he pleaded that it was proving “difficult” to control non-EU immigration (which accounts for half of the total). What he knew but could not say was that the difficulty lay in reconciling an economic positive with a political negative.

At the 2015 general election, a Labour mug promised “controls on immigration”, a pledge that implied a limit on numbers when none existed. A rare moment of candour came recently when Jeremy Corbyn stated that the free movement of EU migrants made such a guarantee impossible. One of the sub-stories of the campaign was Labour’s widening schism over the issue. Figures from the party’s old right, including Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls, demanded limits on free movement. But after refusing to grant Cameron this concession only four months ago, there is little prospect of the EU relenting in the near future. By promising what it cannot deliver (even if it should return to office), Labour risks merely advertising its impotence.

The Leave campaign drew pride from “telling it straight” on immigration – yet it did not. Johnson and Gove complained that the present policy “discriminated” against non-EU migrants, while also vowing to pursue Cameron’s “tens of thousands” target. Only through a sharp reduction in the former could the latter be achieved. What Johnson and Gove knew but could not say was that this would come at a baleful
economic cost.

The referendum campaign was one in which Remain refused to speak of the benefits of increasing immigration, while Leave refused to speak of the costs of reducing it. No longer can it be said that politicians “don’t talk about immigration” – at times they talk of little else. But they do not do so with honesty. In 2014, acknowledging this inconvenient truth, Nigel Farage remarked: “If you said to me, would I like to see over the next ten years a further five million people come into Britain and if that happened we’d all be slightly richer, I’d say I’d rather we weren’t slightly richer.” The Ukip leader has since learned to speak less freely, contenting himself with the false claim that, owing to immigration, GDP per capita has fallen. 

In recent history, there has only been one reliable way of reducing net migration: a recession. Newcomers from the EU halved after the 2008 crash. Should the UK suffer the downturn that historic trends predict, it will need immigrants more than ever. The truth that no politician will utter is that voters may only miss them when they’re gone.

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain