Economic arguments will not persuade a sceptical public about the merits of immigration

Most of the UK-born do not see immigration in terms of its economic benefits, writes Jill Rutter.

Most of the UK-born do not see immigration in terms of its economic benefits, writes Jill Rutter

This Wednesday Left Foot Forward is hosting its first ever policy debate and it is on immigration. Entitled Have Liberals Got It Wrong on Immigration? it is between David Goodhart, author of The British Dream, and the economist Jonathan Portes, director of National Institute for Economic and Social Research.

The debate is the first in Left Foot Forward’s Versus series, but it may well raise more questions that it provides answers.

Jonathan Portes was a government economist who has undertaken much research on immigration, largely about its labour market impacts. Two of his landmark papers on this subject were a 2001 Home Office study and research for the Department for Work and Pension’s paper on the economic impacts of the free movement of EU migrant workers.

Based on his academic output, Jonathan is likely to argue for liberal public policy to be based on sound evidence. He will argue that there is little evidence that immigration causes significant wage depression or job displacement and that arguments about youth unemployment are red herring. In many cases, immigration has benefitted the UK economy, as immigrants pay more taxes into the Exchequer than do UK-born persons while taking out less in benefit payments and their use public services.

Jonathan may also point to London and argue that immigrants drive up school standards, boost innovation and drive up productivity.

This is sound evidence, but much immigration policy is not about managing immigration flows and economic impacts. Rather, it is about managing public opinion. While it is important to have robust evidence about the economic impacts of migration out in the public domain, economic arguments will not persuade a sceptical public about the merits of immigration.

Over the last two years I have been researching a book about integration and social cohesion and I have examined public attitudes to immigration. I have found that most of the UK-born do not see immigration in terms of its economic benefits. Most people I interviewed struggled to articulate the benefits that immigration might have brought them, even those from higher income brackets.

The economic impacts – for example – on food prices, or fiscally, are abstract and difficult to quantify. At the time of a squeeze on living standards, most people do not ‘feel’ the benefits of immigration to their everyday lives, except on a superficial level in relation to a wider choice in food or cursory gratitude to migrants working in the NHS.

Therefore, my question to Jonathan Portes concerns managing public opinion. How should a liberal government or opposition party tackle a sceptical or hostile public?

Speaking for the motion David Goodhart will argue that liberals have got it wrong. He will argue that the Labour government’s decision not to adopt transitional labour market controls on the nationals of the 2004 EU accession states was a disastrous betrayal of the white working class who were pushed out of jobs and saw their wages undercut by migrant workers.

But we can’t turn the clock back to 2004, and this constant ‘we got it wrong’ does not get us in a better position. Migrant workers will continue to come to the UK from Poland, temporarily or to settle. Restricting the free movement of EU citizens would have huge negative impacts on British expatriates. Curtailing their access to benefits and social housing is making a false promise to British voters, as comparatively few EU migrants apply for benefits or social housing.

David will argue that we need to support the UK unemployed. But it will take many, many years of training and large improvements in welfare-to-work provision to get the UK-born long-term unemployed into a position where they can enter and remain in work. My question to David Goodhart is about practical and achievable policy in the short and medium-term – this year and in 2015. Where do liberals go from here?

Immigration is certainly near the top of the political agenda. This week we will see the government make further announcements about restricting the rights of EU migrants to benefits. Wednesday’s debate will be lively and topical and we hope Left Foot Forward readers will attend.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. Her book on integration and social cohesion will be published by Policy Press in 2015

3 Responses to “Economic arguments will not persuade a sceptical public about the merits of immigration”

  1. interested

    Mass immigration forces wages down and keeps housing prices high. All the parties are in favour of this policy so it will continue indefinitely.

  2. Dave Roberts

    I have posted elsewhere about this so I will do so here. In 1992 I was paying labourers £50 a day. Go to Wicks builders merchants near Seven Sisters Road station in north London and outside every morning you will find anywhere up to fifty eastern Europeans looking for work at £25 a day. Go figure.

  3. Sun

    Economics are just mask for other problems people have with immigration.

    The Left wants to change the demographic of the country. Problems are arising. The Right wants to maintain homogeneity.

    When it is beneficial the Left talks about “rubbing the rights nose in diversity.” Now it’s economics.

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