Want to make the case for immigration? Then stop talking about money

The public aren't worried only about the economic impact of immigration.

The debate around immigration has become rather toxic of late, but also rather strange. Almost every day there is a story in the papers linking migrants from the EU to ‘benefit tourism’, and yet there is scant evidence supporting the claim that it constitutes a significant problem.

According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), 16.6 per cent of working age UK nationals claimed benefits in 2012 compared to 6.6 per cent of working age non-UK nationals. As Ranjit Sidhu recently wrote for Left Foot Forward, if the rest of us behaved like migrants the government would have significantly more money in its coffers.

And yet public attitudes remain stubbornly hostile to immigration, despite the mountain of evidence demonstrating its economic benefits. People who see migration as a problem outweigh those who see it as opportunity by a whopping 64 to 29 per cent. Surprisingly perhaps, 40 per cent of Labour supporters think immigration is bad for the economy compared with 36 per cent who believe it is good.

There is ample evidence available with which to counteract myths like these. Migrants are good for the economy and put more into the collective pot than they take out. If it matters, migrants also tend, on average, to be better educated than their British counterparts.

So why the persistence of myths around benefit tourism? Are we, the British, really so dull as to miss what is staring us in the faceeven if, as Bertie Wooster put it, it is “handed to us on a skewer with tartar sauce”? Have the public really been ‘brainwashed by Tory propaganda’, as some suggest?

On the Daily Politics last Wednesday, I overheard shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna implying that complaints about immigration were really code for economic concerns. In other words, it’s all about the economy, stupid.

This is a common theme, particularly on the left. When people say they are concerned about immigration we assume they are really expressing in code concern about their jobs, their income or their mortgage.

Certainly there are reasons why those at the bottom of the labour market may be concerned about wages, and these concerns should not be dismissed lightly. However I suspect that blaming it all on ‘the economy’ is to get things at least partly wrong. Concerns about the economic impact of immigration may just as likely be rationalisations for other, more basic fears about the pace of social and cultural change.

That’s certainly what the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory believes. It says that cultural concerns better explain negative attitudes towards migration than a person’s economic position.

Of course, when people talk about ‘culture’ they aren’t referring to the usual tabloid tropes about Muslims trying to ‘ban’ Christmas, but rather to fears about the pace of change in their communities. They’re not concerned about the colour of a person’s skin but rather worried that one day they will be the only person on the bus who is speaking English.

It is, in essence, about whether England feels like England. And that’s not the England of Enoch Powell or the English Defence League, but may just as well be the England of George Orwell, who wrote that “there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain”.

However fashionable it may be to pretend otherwise, for most people this remains the case.

It’s not enough to dismiss this as xenophobia, although a small proportion of it probably is. According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, 60 per cent of those who came to Britain in the 1960s and 70s want to see a cut in immigration to the UK. Thirty nine percent of non-UK born white respondents earning £75,000 per year reported preferences for ‘a lot’ less migration.

Some might see this as a wish by some to kick away the drawbridge once they’re safely on the ship. But it may simply relate to why many came to Britain in the first place: they were attracted by social and cultural traditions which they now (unduly, in my opinion) worry are disappearing.

A first step in assuaging these fears would be to listen to those espousing them, rather than simply reeling off GDP figures or accusing people of being ‘brainwashed’ by the tabloids. It isn’t always about the economy, and those who only see things as lines on a graph risk looking stupid themselves if they don’t engage with other worries about immigration.

For those of us who do see immigration as a positive thing, the failure to engage with the public on the issue could ultimately have egregious consequences.

Like this article? Left Foot Forward relies on support from readers to sustain our progressive journalism. Can you become a supporter for £5 a month?

29 Responses to “Want to make the case for immigration? Then stop talking about money”

  1. wattys123

    Labour hate the white working class and if elected will continue to ethnically cleanse them.

  2. Stephen

    Do those on the left think about the economic effect on the countries were migrants come from? Perhaps anti-immigration advocates forget the moral argument, but then morality was never their forte was it? All very ironical.

  3. tryttinngg

    “It is a culture as individual as that of Spain” – not exactly Orwell at his finest there given how many areas of Spain view themselves as separate nations. Didn’t Orwell write ‘homage to Catalonia’, after all?

    and: “A first step in assuaging these fears would be to listen to those espousing them” – but you haven’t actually done that here. Instead you’ve decided what they might believe, such as people being “worried that one day they will be the only person on the bus who is speaking English” – with no evidence that this is anyone’s actual fear, nor why it should be such a bad thing (am pretty sure public transport in the East End of London in the early C20th was largely non-Anglophone for instance), and used that invented worry as a stick to bash ‘the left’ with, pretending Orwell is on your side.

    Plus ca change.

  4. Sparky

    Have you noticed that for years all the Left did was accuse people who didn’t want more immigration of being racist? It was the universal smear it applied to everyone. These pages bristled with the trendy, white, middle class, Islington socialists wringing their hands with fake guilt over the plight of minorities and shouting down anyone else with shrill, hectoring, self-righteous accusations of racism.

    Now that the tide of public opinion has patently turned against immigration en-masse, and the accusations of racism simply won’t wash anymore, the Left has tried to soften its approach with these voter-friendly, touchy-feely articles about ‘listening to people’s concerns’ and ‘engaging with the public to assauge their fears’.

    The Left love immigration because immigrants are more likely to vote for left wing parties. That’s the real truth. That’s why Labour went about systematically changing society when it got into power, something that no-one expected and few people wanted.

    And yes, who wants to be the only person on the bus speaking English? I don’t. Who wants their child to be the only white child in their class. I don’t. Who wants their girlfriend to be called a slut in the street because she’s wearing a short skirt? I don’t.

    The kind of people who write these articles never have to engage with the realities of mass immigration because they don’t live in Tower Hamlets, they live in Twickenham. They don’t experience the reality of falling wages in the painting and decorating industry in Birmingham, because they work as as a ‘political blogger’ or ‘think-tank policy researcher’ in Bloomsbury.

  5. tryttinngg

    “Who wants their child to be the only white child in their class. I don’t.” – wow, almost immediate racism in the comments to this article, what a surprise.

  6. leftfootfwd

    The author lives in Stratford.

  7. Trofim

    Warwickshire isn’t exactly the most diverse place in the world.

  8. cbinTH

    Just a correction!

    An olde book I came across about the most ethnically diverse part of the East End at that time, celebrating the local sights, reassures its readers that, in fact, the vast majority of locals are ethnically English (and patriotic, and all the rest).

    Nobody could say that today (and nobody would be allowed to say it, which is another thing), as such a statement would be absurd.

    If most people on the bus, today, speak English, then it is improbable that in much less ethnically diverse times 100 years ago, nobody would have spoken English. So that comment is an incorrect assumption.

    I don’t happen to agree with you, but even if I did, I’d not wish to accidentally falsify history in order to bolster my case

  9. Trofim

    And because there is a “racist” comment underneath an article it therefore it follows that . . . what?

  10. Gumweed

    Stratford’s in South London. Duh!

  11. Gumweed

    Yeah, that’s not a stupid comment at all….

  12. Joao

    I can’t understand why British are so “motivated” with migration issues, when they are the majority of the nationals who live they old years abroad, claiming treatment for free in the other countries of south Europe without ever paying any tax in those lands. Just in Spain is more than a million “old Brits” who live and use expensive resources out there, without ever having paied anything towards it.

  13. Gumweed

    WTF are you talking about? What do ‘those on the left’ have to do with people’s choice to move? Do those on the Australian/Canadian/USA/NZ left-wing left think about the economic effect on Britain when our doctors and nurses move there for higher wages? Who knows? No-one asks them because it’s a daft question

  14. Trofim

    So Shakespeare was born in London? Pull the other one. Anyway, that Stratford is in east London – even I know that.

  15. Lazza

    Countries like Spain have an efficient system to claim it back unlike the UK

  16. Trofim

    Nonsense. Those old Brits take their British pensions to Spain, and spend them there. Gumweed, I see English is not your native language, judging by your syntax.

  17. Guest

    The very most basic axiomatic truths about what makes people tick are denied by
    the left. Most notably the plain, boring, uncool, unfashionable fact that the
    vast majority of human beings need a modicum of familiarity, continuity, even
    predictability in their lives. Certainly, there is a continuum along which the
    threshold of tolerance to “diversity” varies enormously, but in the eyes of
    the left, to be on one end makes one noble, whereas being on
    the other end makes you a monster.


  18. Sparky

    It’s not racist. I want the best educational environment for my children. A class where English is predominantly not the first language is less good than one in which it is. That is a fact. I bet you don’t even have children.

  19. Sparky

    In the Stratford and West Ham Community and Forum Profile 2011, just 63% of those surveyed agreed that ‘people in this area share the same values’. I wonder what the figure would be in Stratford, Warwickshire? I would hazard the figure would be over 90%. Labour’s community cohesion disaster.

  20. Trofim

    I’d say more like 95-98%.

  21. Tryttinngg

    Presupposing that a child with a non-white face will not have English as a first language most assuredly is racist.

  22. Sparky

    Look at the data. Tower Hamlets has a low white population. The majority of children in primary schools do not have English as a first language. Those two facts are not unrelated. It’s because their parents came from overseas. It’s not rocket science. And neither is it racism.

  23. Cole

    Terrifying, innit, all these people speaking funny languages.

  24. Cole

    Don’t be so bloody silly.

  25. OrbiterLover

    Agree with much of Sparky’s post. I wrote about this in a piece called “3 reasons to defend the Daily Mail reader from the Tedious Intellectual Show-off”. The Left-wing media have successfully smeared the stance that immigration should be controlled as being typical of a “racist” or worse, “a Daily Mail reader”. Ultimately, demonizing anybody who questions Labour’s Community Cohesion project.

  26. Orbiter Lover

    Agree with much of Sparky’s post. I wrote about this in a piece called “3 reasons to defend the Daily Mail reader from the Tedious Intellectual Show-off”. The Left-wing media have successfully smeared the stance that immigration should be controlled as being typical of a “racist” or worse, “a Daily Mail reader”. Ultimately, demonizing anybody who questions Labour’s Community Cohesion project.

  27. George Carty

    Do they also pay for their health care out of their own pocket though?

  28. Trofim

    According to a programme I watched recently, after a certain time, arrangements are made to repatriate British nationals, and they have to pay for their own interpreters too.

  29. kangaeru

    Pre-supposing that not having English as a first language and having parents “from overseas” makes an educational environment “less good” in your words, is reaching a conclusion based on a biased and generalised group judgement, so yes it is most definitely racist. Further, you correlate a low white population with not speaking English as a first a first language and being from “overseas”. It therefore appears that your concept of an immigrant or migrant does not Include white European/American/ Canadian/Australian people, thus implying discriminatory criteria, thus again leading one to reach a conclusion again of, yes you’ve guessed it, racism, or at best, unadulterated xenophobia.
    In any case, as far as I am aware English remains the taught language at school. Also, the Institute for Public Policy Research, has demonstrated that nine ethnic minority groups outperformed their white British peers at GCSE level. Further, London has the highest proportion of migrant children in its schools, yet its secondary schools have outperformed and improved faster over the last ten years than anywhere else in the country. I will refrain from drawing any conclusions regarding correlations or causality, however this statistically sound study refutes the belief that these horrible little brown foreigners are leading to a drop in standards at schools. Before I get the “you don’t know what it’s like” argument levelled at me, yes, I have children, and no, I don’t live in a lovely leafy suburb or subscribe to a certain champagne socialist agenda either.
    I completely agree that we move beyond the tired and dishonest economic debate regarding immigration. I also acknowledge that the fears about immigration apparently shared by the majority of the British population are real and have a tangible impact on people’s lives. This validity however should not be confused with justifiability. We need to examine at why we have these anxieties about “the other” and challenge them. Our judgement and indeed our expectation of others should be based on their actions and contributions to society, not by how they look or talk. It would be unthinkable to make a judgement based on class, so why is place of origin any different? Xenophobia is never justifiable.

Leave a Reply