Immigration means different things to different people. The left should recognise that.
The government has suppressed a report showing that the number of UK workers unemployed because of non-EU immigration is well below the figure cited by ministers, according to the BBC.
Number 10 has denied the claim but Labour has called for the report to be published. Downing Street has responded by insisting that the report will be published “in due course”.
Critics of the government have jumped on the news as evidence that Downing Street is attempting to shape the data to fit its anti-immigration narrative. And there is some merit to this view. At times the government has been happy to portray migrants as potential ‘benefit tourists’ but has also played upon fears about migrants ‘stealing British jobs’.
It should be blindingly obvious to most people that immigrants cannot do both. As repeatedly demonstrated by mountains of evidence, most migrants come to the UK to work rather than to claim benefits.
Migrants who came to the UK after the year 2000 have made a ‘substantial’ contribution to public finances, according to a 2013 study by University College London. Those from the European Economic Area (EEA – the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) made a particularly strong contribution in the decade up to 2011, contributing 34 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits. 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.
And this makes sense. Would you fork out hundreds of pounds for a plane ticket to go and claim £72.40 a week in Jobseeker’s Allowance in a strange country? No, I didn’t think so.
That said, it’s no use being smug or accusing those who take the opposite view of bigotry: there are still questions raised by immigration which the left must address.
There is good evidence, as documented by the Migration Observatory, that immigration has a negative effect on wages at the lower end of the labour market. According to its latest briefing document:
“UK research suggests that immigration has a small impact on average wages of existing workers but more significant effects along the wage distribution: low-wage workers lose while medium and high-paid workers gain.”
As I’ve written before, the middle classes tend to associate immigration to the UK with things like fancy restaurants, new music and a Polish cleaning lady who makes a better (not to mention cheaper) fist of cleaning the office than her British counterpart. For the working classes, however, migration can mean stiffer competition for wages.
This was reflected in the 2012 British Social Attitudes Survey, whose authors found that:
“[In recent years] economically comfortable and culturally more cosmopolitan groups show little change in their assessments of economic impacts [of immigration], but economically and socially insecure groups have become dramatically more hostile.”
For the middle classes it’s easy to score a few points with one’s liberal peers by dismissing concerns about immigration. After all, if it’s someone else’s pay packet that will be impacted by greater immigration, why worry?
But those of us on the progressive left should worry; especially if we believe, on balance, that immigration is good for the UK. Ignoring the impact immigration has on the low paid plays into the hands of UKIP, who are positioning themselves are a party which listens to working class concerns (despite the fact that their policies cater to the elite).
There are a number of ways we might seek to address the issue of migration and low pay – encouraging newly-arrived migrants to join trade unions would be a start. But a first step in tackling a problem is to admit that one exists. That means recognising that the catch-all narrative of ‘immigration’ plays out very differently for different people.
Immigration benefits Britain. But some benefit more than others. We should defend the principle of free movement without brushing the problems under the carpet.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.