How can we get beyond the populist debate on immigration? - RSA

How can we get beyond the populist debate on immigration?

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  • Picture of Brhmie Balaram
    Brhmie Balaram
    Associate Director, Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing (family leave)
  • Global
  • Leadership

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released its latest figures on net migration last week, spurring headlines about ‘record breaking immigration’ to the UK.

While net migration has remained more or less consistent at 335,000 since first breaking records in March 2016, the new data shows that there was an increase in the number of EU citizens migrating to the UK, prior to the referendum. However, there hasn’t been a stark rise in net migration since last year, suggesting that it is stabilising overall.

Predictably, the response from politicians has been devoid of any nuance: a familiar chorus of panic about immigration being too high, calls for numbers to come down, and more vows to reduce migration to the UK.

When discussing immigration to the UK, it’s easy to fall into a trap of inflammatory rhetoric about numbers. Yet, at a time of deep social and political division, we must try to get beyond the populist debate on immigration.

Here are some points to keep in mind when chatting with friends and family about immigration:

1. Most migrants looking for work are heading to places where there is demand for workers.

The ONS has captured data on migrant origins and destinations, noting regional differences in growth. Nearly 40 percent of the growth was in London and the South East. While the increase in the South East was statistically significant, it isn’t surprising that migrants are drawn to these areas. London in particular has a long history of migration, but both have thriving local economies. The latest labour market statistics from the ONS in November show that the South East has the highest employment rate at 78 percent. London comes in at 73.6 percent, which is a record high for the capital, and it also added the most number of jobs (54,000).

The distribution of migrants matters because it reveals that migrant destinations tend to be determined by patterns of growth in the economy. In other words, migrants are more likely to go where the probability of finding a job is high and are thus concentrated in particular cities and regions where they can meet a demand for workers.

2. What is considered ‘too high’ a level of migration in Teesside, for example, may be considered low in London.

Some cities and regions have a greater capacity to absorb high levels of migration than others. Usually, these tend to be more prosperous places that are in a position to accommodate a growing population.  

In areas where migration appears to be lower, but opposition is high, we should look out for fierce competition at the bottom of the labour market coupled with low levels of integration. The capacity of these places to absorb migrants is weak, regardless of whether their levels of migration are relatively low. What constitutes a high number of migrants is subjective, depending on capacity, or even perceptions of capacity. The good news is that capacity can be built over time.

Given what we know about trends in distribution, we can also plan ahead to address potential pressures on housing, schools and public services. While it can be challenging for even our most moneyed cities to build enough homes, add more school places, and keep waiting times down at the doctor’s, as net contributors to our public finances migrants are helping to support and strengthen our public infrastructure. As net contributors, migrants contribute more to the collective coffer than they take out, ideally enabling places with higher levels of migration to respond to increased demands on the state.

3. Economic and social policies are more useful for addressing concerns about numbers than immigration policies.

The repeated failure of the government to meet its net migration target in spite of increasingly stringent immigration policies suggests that we’re reaching the limits of what we can do here without making huge economic sacrifices. Rather than continuing to go after students and highly-skilled workers, let’s think about how economic and social policies can build capacity in areas struggling with or resistant to migration.

For example, in these areas we should renew our efforts to improve the quality of jobs and ensure equal access to opportunities. If employers are exploiting migrants by paying them less than the minimum wage, we must enforce proper pay so that wages won’t be squeezed to the detriment of all workers.

While the evidence in aggregate suggests that migrants aren’t negatively impacting wages, the poorest paid workers are slightly affected. The economist Jonathan Portes has described the impact among those earning an average wage of £8 an hour as a reduction in annual pay rises of about a penny an hour. Portes acknowledges that this may be substantial for some low paid workers, but argues that the level of the minimum wage, the decline in trade union power, technological and industrial change have had far bigger impacts on low-level sectors. Workers would be better served by labour market interventions designed in their best interest than restrictions on immigration.

Similarly, we should be investing more in offering English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses rather than slashing funding. The social value outweighs whatever meagre savings we make by denying ESOL to newcomers.

A challenge for future conversations

Here’s a challenge for all of us, but politicians in particular: the next time we feel tempted to make a broad and sweeping statement like ‘immigration to the UK is too high’, let’s try to be more specific about where exactly immigration is too high and follow it up with why we think that is. Succumbing to populism on immigration only served to fan the flames of nationalist fervour during the EU referendum and the presidential election in the US.

To address localised concerns about immigration we need to be far more precise about how we communicate. 

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  • Immigrants may be net contributors but are  their contributions reflected in increased public expenditure in the form of new  homes , schools, doctors, nurses, teachers , infrastructure. 

    If the population has been  increasing  by 1 million every 3 years have we had an increase in the above at the same rate?

    • Good question for the Treasury. We should be transparent about how their contributions are spent. Seems like as a first and more realistic step we should be investing more accordingly in public services and infrastructure rather than seeking to crack down on immigration.

  • "To address localised concerns about immigration we need to be far more precise about how we communicate."

    My response ...

    I find these sorts of 'liberal' debates quite disturbing since they just see people as objects to be manipulated by yet more social and economic policies in order to further enforce on us more irresponsible immigration.  

    What of the cultural and ecological concerns that constituencies have regarding large influxes of temporary residents who do not respect local community values but simply see communities as faceless economic vehicles by which to earn more money than they could if they were at home. Why aren't their governments giving them what they need. Why aren't they taking responsibility for their citizens' wellbeing. Why are we being forced to take responsibility for their poor governance.

    The immediate question that arises for me is exactly how many temporary residents see the communities that they move into as their committed home. Probably a small minority I would guess which leaves me to think that our home is not a transit zone by which temporary residents can push up rents (economics 101), keep low wages pegged to the minimum wage, encourage employers to adopt zero hour (just-in-time) contracts and perhaps most importantly actively avoid disputes with employers regarding working conditions because they are simply chasing money without our wellbeing at heart.

    So yes social and economic policies can be deployed, but to what end. To reduce the competitive nature of economic liberalism or to encourage more highly competitive migration-led economic growth. 

    Either will sustain a coordinator class but whilst the latter encourages competitive community relations resulting in negative attitudes towards temporary residents, the former would allow communities to self-determine which can channel existing competitive relations into civic democracy. 

    It might be worth pointing out at this stage if my response that in terms of being in a relatively closed economic system, wage differentials will always be discriminating in that wage differentials will always place finite limits to the opportunity to access diverse goods and services. This means wage differentials actively discriminate against low wage earners since their low wage automatically deprives them of the same diversity that is available to coordinator class high wage earners. From this point of view, migration-led led growth is a perfect policy to keep low wage earners in their place.

    The fact of the matter is that freedom of movement of labour is simply a tool to enable our 'distant' coordinator class to profit from globalised and regional neoliberalism. However by encouraging socities to be 'highly competitive social economies' then conflictual relations are bound to result. In this sense, it is this very competition that the coordinator class uses to better manage us by both encouraging conflict and then being able to police it thereby playing one cultural group against another through entitlement and deprivation. 

    Therefore, by causing us all more stress, more insecurity and more survival anxiety due to this irresponsible but managed competition, we are experiencing reductions in our well-being, whether it is ourselves, our families, our communities or our natural environment. 

    We know it is no coincidence that following the financial crash and the huge surge of migration into the UK, it was immediately followed by huge public service cutbacks. And whilst I can appreciate the rationale behind eu (and non-eu) migration-led growth, where is the money to support all this growth in terms of needing to dramatically expand infrastructure and public services when as a nation, we have serious debt problems. 

    With inadequate public funds, we now have roads that are more congested than ever before, air and water that is more polluted than ever, a housing crisis never seen before, inadequate public services and more community tensions not seen since the 1950s. But where is the money going to come from to pay to resolve all these issues. Who is to pay for this migration-led growth that requires the capacity of our public services and infrastructure to be increased dramatically. What of our natural and agricultural environment that needs to be sacrificed in order to create this highly competitive social economy.

    That all said, the big question that never gets answered by the many liberal analysis trying to resolve the issues regarding the hollowing out of our communities, our values, our traditions, our greenbelt, our public services and our housing is - when is enough enough. 

    In response, I would suggest that a better, albeit populist approach, is to explore policies which enable constituencies to be self-determining rather than continue with the liberal endeavour to erode the well-being of our constituent communities. For example, why not let constituencies choose how many temporary residents they want.  Also how about letting constituent citizens be able to vote on licensing, planning and development decisions so that we can also shape our cultural, social, economic and ecological environments democratically. 

    The last point to iterate is to what extent do temporary residents feel any responsibility towards us the indigenous population. To what extent do temporary residents feel any responsibility towards our natural environment and  to what extent do temporary residents feel any responsibility regarding the availability of the agricultural land we need to feed, shelter, heat and clothe ourselves. 

    Do temporary residents actually care that they push up demand for food imports and so leaving us vulnerable to food shocks and oil shocks, especially likely if there is a climate crisis. 

    Do they actually care if they put an upward pressure on rents (economics 101). Do they actually care if they put a downward pressure on our wages (economics 101). Do they actually care if they are putting a downward pressures on our living standards (economics 201). Do they actually care if they are causing a surge in homelessness. Do they actually care if our greenbelt, our agricultural land, our wildlife habitats and our ecosystems are being destroyed to make way for migration-led growth. 

    Do they actually care about the British people at all or do they just walk about with pound signs in their eyes blind to the disruption that they are causing whilst they quickly pay off their homes and buy up land in their home countries. 

    So after destroying our home, will temporary residents feel satisfied they have a bought and paid for a secure home of their own and have a healthy natural environment to go back home when they decide to return. Leaving us with a concrete jungle. Nice! 

    So how about some liberal social and economic analysis and policies that relate to the extent to which temporary residents lack any responsibility towards our long-term well-being.  And d

    Bilateral agreements could also help. For example by levying a tax on the government relating to temporary residents to help mitigate against the extra health costs that are incurred due to the increased pollution created by burning their waste and temporary residents using oil-derived products. 

    How about taxing any rent that they might receive on their homes in their home country to help resolve the housing crisis that they are drammatically helping to cause. How about they do voluntary community work to force them to integrate into our communities rather than simply using our home as a means to an end. 

    Lastly, how about acknowledging that immigration cannot continue indefinitely without limits unless of course the desired liberal aim is to turn the UK into a concrete jungle.


  • I agree with what you say but think till a Government  addresses what the native population think immigrants are responsible for ie stretched services and low paid jobs, the extremists always win the arguments.

    One thing we could do is look at helping entrepreneurs in deprived areas, encourage self assertion, non violent responses to conflict. Perhaps the past Quaker method of teach 2 people and get them to go and teach 2 people. In days when there were similar lack of resources it worked quite well. Then we have foundation to build on. We need to give people a voice so we don't get extremists claiming to be their voice. My experience is the people's voice is a kinder more welcoming one once they understand things.

  • This piece is a great start for a debate with a focus on economic and social issues. I broadly agree that there is a great deal of evidence that this dimension is crucial for both members of the country of destination and immigrants. However, this debate has to be seen in a wider context of political and institutional "disconnect" which is only partially social in nature. Not least, cultural challenges should be part of the discussion.

  • Like many commentaries on immigration, this avoids the key point that has worried a large section of the population - namely the concept of 'scale'. Even if every immigrant is a lovely person, and even if a majority have well-paid employment, the sheer weight of numbers is causing societal problems. Since 1997 we have added ca. 10 million people to the population, just under half of that (ca. 4.4m according to ONS) from global immigration. Just the immigration-related part of the increase represents adding 32 new cities the size of the city of Cambridge (138,000) to the country. That is clearly a logistical and public service provision nightmare. It's the sustainability of this *scale* that requires a more detailed discussion than the nature of the migrants themselves, a discussion that is as yet not taking place as politicians of the left and the right argue about whether the migrants are valuable in themselves.

    • The entirety of this article addresses scale - it's a response to new numbers from the ONS on net migration. I do not discuss the nature of the migrants themselves.

      Please see Points 1 and 2 on the varying capacity of towns/cities to absorb migration, and how our notion of scale is subjective and based on our perceptions of this capacity. 

      • I feel you don't really address the enormity of the scale - 32 cities the size of Cambridge plus the same again for internal population growth (thus 60+ cities). You suggest that we can 'absorb' this growth and create new capacity as we did for previous migrations - but the scale is radically different. Earlier groups of migrants were very small by comparison and were more easily absorbed and housed, schooled etc.

        Your thesis seems to be that we can find ways to cope with the huge growth in population. But this assumes that we have to accept the growth, that it is a given, or it's a public good - clearly the majority of the citizens disagree wtih this thesis and don't wish to have a huge growth in population.

        On one point you are absolutely clearly correct:  we should not be counting inbound students as migrants and seeking to restrict their recruitment. They bring enormous benefits to the  UK and mostly return home and continue to be friends & supporters of the UK.

        We should remove them from migration statistics altogether, as they are not really a component of the population question - they really are a public good.