When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration?

Politicians refuse to tell the truth to voters, when they say that immigration is the cause of persistently high worklessness, writes Declan Gaffney.

‘British jobs for British workers’ was one of the most idiotic slogans ever voiced by a Labour leader, combining economic illiteracy with staggeringly inept political opportunism. With that simple phrase Gordon Brown mobilised a misleading association between two of the most poisonous issues in UK politics – migration and benefit receipt – which blew up in his face.

It also handed the Conservatives the basis for a narrative on employment under Labour which has gained widespread acceptance despite being demonstrably false: all the growth in jobs went to migrants leaving out-of-work benefit receipt unchanged.

Back in 2009 the then leader of the opposition David Cameron quite rightly said:

“The Prime Minister should never have used that slogan. On the one hand he lectures everyone about globalisation and on the other he borrows this slogan from the BNP. He has been taking people for fools and has been found out.”

But if the Conservatives have avoided the slogan, they have never ceased to deploy the flawed reasoning behind it to trash Labour’s record. With Iain Duncan Smith’s speech in Madrid yesterday, ‘British jobs for British workers’ is back on the agenda.

The precedent was not lost on the editorial writer for that morning’s Daily Mail:

“Of all the broken Labour promises, few have turned out to be more hollow than Gordon Brown’s commitment to provide ‘British jobs for British workers’. Migrants allowed unfettered access to the labour market grabbed the lion’s share of new jobs while our unemployed, many of them school-leavers, were consigned to a life of welfare dependency.”

The Express was similarly supportive:

“For so long as Britain’s labour market is open to all-comers from dozens of other countries, the chances of getting our own long-term unemployed into work will be greatly impaired.”

There is little point in arguing with statements like this, which are related to labour market economics in much the same way as astrology is related to astronomy.

The table below shows what happened to employment and benefit receipt under the last government.

Prior to the financial markets crisis, employment grew by three million and out-of-work benefit receipt fell by over a million. With the ensuing recession employment fell and out-of-work benefit receipt rose. These are not the same thing: it is perfectly possible for employment and benefit receipt to rise at the same time, and the fact that the movements in both are of similar scale in the table below is a coincidence.

To claim that migration prevented welfare receipt from falling is to offer an incoherent explanation for something that didn’t happen.

Table 1:

Change-in-employment-and-out-of-work-benefit-receipt
Migration can affect benefit receipt, but not in the direct manner assumed in the musings of armchair labour market experts. Under certain circumstances, migration can affect wages and this can have knock-on effects on employment: you can read the theory here.

But studies of the impact of migration in the UK have found no or very slight negative impacts on wages for ‘native-born’ workers. So if there are any impacts from migration through lower wages to lower employment and thus higher benefit receipt, they are insignificant compared to the other factors which drive worklessness.

But this sort of detail is beside the point. The welfare/migration myth doesn’t involve even rudimentary economic theory. To borrow David Cameron’s words, it takes people for fools. We will have to see whether his minister will be ‘found out’. It seems unlikely, as the opposition, whose job this would be, have saddled themselves with their own version of the same myth.

The enduring mystery about ‘British jobs for Britsh workers’ is how and why Labour came to believe that it could dip into this know-nothing political territory without causing lasting damage to its reputation on employment and welfare.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today. 

28 Responses to “When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration?”

  1. Hens4Freedom

    RT @leftfootfwd: When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://bit.ly/kfb2Wa – Declan Gaffney reports

  2. Carmelita Serkei

    When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://bit.ly/kfb2Wa – Declan Gaffney reports

  3. Michael

    When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? – http://tinyurl.com/6dcyy97

  4. TheBiPolarBearMD

    When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? – http://tinyurl.com/6dcyy97

  5. Richard Exell

    RT @leftfootfwd: When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://t.co/E7GSXAF

  6. Tony Bovaird

    When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? – http://tinyurl.com/6dcyy97

  7. DrKMJ

    RT @leftfootfwd: When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://bit.ly/kfb2Wa – Declan Gaffney reports

  8. paulwalteruk

    RT @leftfootfwd: When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://t.co/1EYGrEx

  9. TUCGlobal

    RT @leftfootfwd: When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://t.co/dTrOitv

  10. Clive Burgess

    When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://bit.ly/kfb2Wa – Declan Gaffney reports

  11. Dave Citizen

    Declan – your analysis is too narrow to be of use in deciding what approach a society should take on migration. The impacts of imigration go much wider than can be shown by a handful of economic measures.

    Taking a few obvious areas that get missed by such a narrow ‘economics’ analysis:

    Immigration pushes up demand for limited housing in specific locations putting the existing community under increased housing price and access pressure.

    Immigrants compete in ‘skills pockets’, impacting heavily in particular trades / places – e.g. building sites with say a polish ‘crew’. This may reinforce localised benefits dependency for those whose skills cover the same ‘pockets’.

    Communities hosting pockets of migrants bear a disproportionate load in terms of language / cultural impacts in schools and elsewhere. Host children being affected may not reap the business benefits but may lose out in terms of educational quality and opportunity, further reinforcing the benefits dependency cycle.

    Meanwhile the main business beneficiaries of mass immigration are nicely insulated, being part of an almost entirely separate culture and community, with reassuringly unaffordable houses and their own private schooling system.

    So, any sensible society will want to carefully control immigration so that boosting the economy isn’t at the expense of a poorer standard of living for most of the people.

  12. Ed's Talking Balls

    ‘Declan – your analysis is too narrow to be of use in deciding what approach a society should take on migration. The impacts of imigration go much wider than can be shown by a handful of economic measures.’

    Very, very well said Dave.

    That the political class thinks that immigration is simply an economic issue and that those with concerns can be silenced by pointing at graphs is indicative of its gross complacency. For years there have, justifiably, been accusations that politicians are out of touch. Nowhere is this more apparent than with immigration.

  13. Michael Burke

    Excellent piece.

    Dave C, the analysis isn’t too narrow a all- it takes on the central myth that immigration has caused the rise in unemployment. That myth- and your account- ignore entirely the small matter that immigrants come to work and thus create prosperity. A far greater proportion of immigrants are of working age than the British-born population. As a result this reduces the dependency ratio- the proportion of the population either too old or too young for work. It increases the proportion at work and paying taxes.

    Those who would seek to significantly curtail immigration are pursung the Japanese model, where immigration is severely restricted. Japan experiences shortages of labour in key areas, has a sharply rising dependency ratio and as a result has has two ‘lost decades’ of economic stagnation.

  14. Declan

    I wasn’t trying to set out what approach a society should take on migration, just to deal with a specific and demonstrably incorrect claim about migration and benefit receipt under the last government. As it happens, I agree that the value of purely economic perspectives is limited, but it is not zero: it helps us distinguish fact and fiction in some of the assertions which are made about the impact of migration, and it gives us a sense of the scale of impacts. As migration risks getting blamed for so many negatives in society, it is important to be able to quantify its effects. It is obvious for example that if migration had any effect at all on benefit receipt it was trivial compared to other factors- so IDS is ‘taking the public for fools’. With regard to the ‘cycle of benefit dependency’, that doesn’t stand up well to quantitative analysis either, but that’s for another day……

  15. Laurence Hopkins

    @RichardExell: RT @leftfootfwd: When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://t.co/1cOmCF6 @ACJSissons

  16. Leon Wolfson

    “So, any sensible society will want to carefully control immigration”

    Yes, like this government’s crackdown on highly skilled migrants. We don’t need jobs, after all. (Those jobs CREATE other jobs, not cost them, overall!)

  17. Noxi

    RT @leftfootfwd: When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://bit.ly/kfb2Wa – Declan Gaffney reports

  18. Stephen W

    Fair enough. I was going to respond on the article about Frank Field. But since this one is arguing almost exactly the same case. I’ll respond here.

    Your argument basically boils down claiming that no job taken by a migrant would have been filled by a native worker. Or equivalently, every job that is no taken by a recent migrant would not have existed without migrants.

    Considering the massive scale of immigration over the previous 20 years this claim seems outright nonsensical. The fact that out of work benefit receipts fell when employment rose does not mean that it would not have fallen further and faster if we had not had the same vast scale of immigration over the last 20 years.

    What both the simplistic migrants bad and your simplistic migrants good explanation miss is the geographic factor. Most jobs created were in the South. Where most immigration went was in the South-east. This cut out the majority of benefit claimants who were in the North, Wales, Midlands etc. They were then helped with public sector jobs to even things up. The problem was these public sector jobs were dangerously reliant on public borrowing (to the tune of £30 billion a year pre-crash) and massive tax revenues from housing and banking bubbles, all of which now are gone. Now this has happened these public jobs are falling away and these areas outside the south are screwed again. What we need is a genuine and realistic appraisal of this and a long-term plan to try to combat the weakness of our economy outside the south, and face up to the fact that just funding vast amounts of public sector jobs is not a sustainable solution in these areas, because these jobs are too vulnurable to fluctuations in government’s ability to fund them.

    That said, of course migration is not the only factor. But it beggars beleif that you would claim that massive, migration in the millions to only a few areas, which also happened to largely be where the jobs are, did not have some serious impact on this problem.

  19. Democratic Society

    Noted: When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://bit.ly/l1p1ld

  20. Declan

    Stephen, I really think you should write up your points on your own blog. I’m not going to get into a discussion about the drivers of UK employment change and fiscal balances over the last twenty years in the comments to a post which simply set out to correct a false factual claim about migration and benefit receipt.

  21. Leon Wolfson

    Stephen; By your own argument, the areas with the high jobless rates outside the south are not seeing that much immigration. And the damage there was done by, er, Thatcher.

    Not immigration.

  22. Stephen W

    1. I am actually planning to do that. When I’m done, I’ll be sure to send you a link.

    2. You’re really not just “simply set out to correct a false factual claim about migration and benefit receipt”. You’re making a very broad and wide claim to that effect. Trying to dress it up as a simple statistical fact is to deliberately miss the substantive point that’s being made. Either that or there’s not much point to 90% of what you’ve actually written here and in your other article.

    3. All that other stuff I briefly mentioned is relevant to the point you’re making because it is the rest of the explanation to the very narrow point you’re arguing against and some politicians have apparently argued for. Without that context both your point and their point are missing what’s interesting about the wider and serious problem.

  23. Stephen W

    @ Leon Wolfson

    The damage was not done by, er, Thatcher. It was done by the wider economic reality that much of British mining and manufacturing just could not compete internationally. All Thatcher did was end the doomed attempts to go on pretending that just wasn’t the case. Meaning the result happened spectacularly at once rather than occurring over time so adjustments could be made.

    It is a problem with many parts. I’m certainly not saying migration alone is to blame, because it’s not. But it is certainly one element of a much wider problem.

  24. Leon Wolfson

    Thatcher did a LOT more than that.

    And oh sure, one small element – there are a few, localised issues, but that’s something that government contingency funding should be in place for. The kind of hysterical media reaction to the topic is just that – overblown and hysterical.

    I’m Jewish, a third generation immigrant, and I am starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable here. I believe in Britain (not England), but it seems that its media doesn’t believe in me.

  25. Leon Wolfson

    I’d add that there has already been a high noticeable, negative impact on the UK’s media industry from the cap (the Games industry in particular, which was already struggling), the very sort of industry which should be encouraged – but it DOES need access to the global talent pool, which is why Canada is doing so well at attracting it.

    That kind of Job Denial ain’t good, especially when you consider that those kind of jobs create *other* service jobs, and hence have a large knock-on impact.

  26. Dave Citizen

    @ Leon & Micheal – when I said “carefully control immigration” I meant only that – not prevent it. We should know who is coming to work here, why and what impact they’re going to have on our Society.

    Granted, there will be some industries where particular skilled employees are needed to set up business development and trigger growth, to society’s advantage. I say invite such people in while frantically investing in training etc. to fill future gaps.

    My comments related more to those areas where economic migrants quite understandably come here to get more pay for basic work such as building labourers, hotel staff or motorway service work. This boosts profits for businesses and rents for landlords but is it good for host communities and competing local workers?

    Britain has tended to have immigration policies that just reflect the interests of business owners and landlords, leading to further inequality and understandable resentment.

    As to “the small matter that immigrants come to work and thus create prosperity” – this really is hopelessly simplistic. Material prosperity generally depends on what you can afford with your wages – if housing is in shorter supply and there’s more competition for the jobs you can do then your wages will go less far. Wider prosperity depends on a sense of wellbeing in where you live – if you feel under threat or your children’s education is being impacted then that ain’t good for your prosperity. Fostering real wealth growth is a complex matter and will, I suggest, mean thinking carefully about the industries we encourage, ensuring our population is well educated and trained and making sure we don’t pander to the narrow interests of the current business / landowning elite.

  27. Christoffel Manana

    RT @leftfootfwd: When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? http://t.co/pHn0C59

  28. DWP evidence says migrants aren't benefit cheats. DWP's spin says... | Left Foot Forward

    […] When will politicians stop taking the public for fools on immigration? – Declan Gaffney, July 2nd […]

Leave a Reply