Thursday, March 6, 2014

Can equality beat xenophobia?

So now it's the turn of the IPPR to say its thing about immigration. A few thoughts.

There is something I've always found curious about the reaction to immigration in the UK, above and beyond the fact that there is little evidence that it has had any deleterious economic effects (see on this Jonathan Portes and Simon Wren-Lewis, the latter increasingly puzzled at people's inability to look at the data objectively). Hostility to immigration is a pretty constant feature of modern societies, even those founded on mass migration themselves (the US being the prime example). This hostility is particularly strong when migrants have very different ethnic and religious identities to the host nation.

What is quite striking about the UK's current preoccupation with immigration is that, unlike previous waves, the incoming population is pretty similar to the indigenous one. Eastern Europeans do not look obviously different to the white majority of Britons, they have similar religious backgrounds (usually Catholic or Orthodox Christians), and it is a stretch to claim that they have markedly different cultures. So racism, which it is usually pretty easy to associate with hostility to immigration, isn't an obvious part of the current anti-immigrant climate.

Instead, most of the concern seems to be directed at the objective, material consequences of the arrival of a large number of working-age adults in a country with a stretched infrastructure and a very open labour market. There may be little evidence that immigration itself is driving down wages, but it is certainly the case that there has been large scale immigration in a period in which wage growth has been first stagnant, then negative, for most employees, and pressure on the available housing has begun to be unsustainable.

Although I reject the scapegoating which accompanies nearly all discussion of immigration in the public sphere these days, I think the IPPR report's appeal for a 'fair deal', does actually capture part of what is going on here. Immigration has become the acceptable way for people with no particular attachment to progressive politics to talk about issues of poverty, inequality and fairness. So, instead of complaining that Britain's fabled 'flexible labour market' - with its emasculated unions, minimalist legislative protections, and unencumbered managerialism - makes people's working lives miserable, we complain that migrants are taking all the jobs and driving down wages. In fact what drives down wages is workers' weak bargaining position, which is best addressed not by punitive and impractical restrictions on freedom of movement, but by legislating and organising for employees to get a better deal. Similarly, instead of addressing housing shortages by taxing property and buy-to-let landlords properly, intervening to increase supply and generating a genuine market driven by consumer demand, we blame immigrants just for being here.

So the answer is not to try and change people's minds about immigration: that's a hopeless task. Instead we must focus on making people's lives better so they have less to complain about. Immigration is here to stay for all kinds of reasons, and the best way to protect freedom of movement and take the political pressure off migrants themselves is to improve working conditions and quality of life for everyone who lives in the UK. And thankfully, there are policies that can do this. There is no evidence that a brutal labour market is better for productivity and growth, nor does the current organisation of the housing market make any sense. There are tried and tested policy responses to inequalities of pay, working conditions and housing which are perfectly compatible with good economic performance: indeed all the evidence is that inequality is bad for growth. So Labour should bite the bullet and do something for the workers. It won't make them like immigrants, but it should stop them being tempted by the reactionary and frankly racist message we're hearing from the right.