The Politics of Immigration

 In Politics


Illustration by Aurelia Lange

Five years ago I was working in Parliament advocating referendum politics. The last two, (on the voting system in 2011 and this month’s one on EU membership) have been simply embarrassing. Both referendums have been examples of the worst kind of populist politics and cynical campaigning; from all sides. There are plenty of facts and stats in this EU debate that could have been illuminating to voters but they have been buried by crude rhetoric. It has again shown the contempt our politicians, and the press, have for the electorate. My decision to vote remain isn’t because I have been persuaded by either side. All the scaremongering has made me feel queasy about endorsing any of them, but this is a hugely important vote.

Immigration has become the central issue for this referendum.  What both sides agree on is that the numbers in the UK from the EU, through free movement, are about the same as immigration from outside the EU (each just under 190 thousand in 2015). So that means the uncontrolled immigration – from those countries closest to us – is about the same as that from the rest of the world – which is controlled. If the number from the EU was dramatically more than the numbers we can control then it would raise questions. Another stat is there are about 3 million EU immigrants living in the UK. There are about 2 million UK nationals living elsewhere in the EU.  None of these numbers are particularly unbalanced or out of kilter. So what’s the problem?

There certainly are some: It has been shown that areas with high immigration and low wages do lose out. Immigration does suppress the wages of the lowest earners in the UK.  However, this is mitigated by the minimum wage and this affect has been exaggerated by those on the leave side. Affluent areas with high immigration, such as London, are more relaxed about this issue than rural areas with relatively low immigration. This suggests for many this is an imagined problem, perhaps motivated more by nationalism rather than a genuine concern for indigenous working class.

With immigrants making a far bigger net tax contribution to this country than they take out in benefits and other services, the big issue in this debate is misleading. Those who vote because of this issue risk assisting those politicians most willing to exploit people’s insecurities and fears to gain power.  They are the same who claim half our laws are made in Brussels, that Parliament has no control. These are not even exaggerations. They are fabrications. These politicians are the least suited to govern.

Whatever system we would adopt if we left the EU it wouldn’t make a great difference to the numbers of EU immigrants coming currently with free movement. The reason for this is simple – we need them. They are doing many of the grimmest jobs within the NHS, they are the cleaners and manual workers. Many are also higher earners helping to pay the taxes for our ageing population. If we had particularly high unemployment then this would put a dent in this argument.  But we really don’t – we currently have historically low unemployment.

No doubt the EU is a clumsy and inefficient bureaucratic institution. On the other hand it forms by far the most advanced free trade zone to ever exist.  Mistakes have been made; the expansion in 2004 has caused problems and was uncontrolled. The attempt to conceal this by the Labour government was shabby.  A lot can be done better. The EU can be more democratic and accountable. But the democratic deficit is nothing compared to the inevitable process if we leave – a city full of lawyers extricating ourselves out of and rewriting EU law and regulations because there is no chance that Parliament will be able go through it all. This won’t be remotely democratic. Then there will be hashed trade deals made – if we can make any at all. I certainly don’t trust Gove and Boris to stand up for our labour laws when negotiating with Wall Mart.

I wish at the beginning of this campaign Cameron had just kept quiet – made a simple statement acknowledging how unpopular politicians are and that therefore government had to stay out of it. He’s seemed completely unaware that any campaigning by the government on this issue risked turning this into a referendum on our politics rather than the EU. The governments involvement in this referendum has been toxic.  Many of those who feel disenfranchised will vote to leave the EU. Not because the EU is in any way the cause of their woes, but because it has successfully been turned into the behemoth representing the status quo – what Farage has conveniently branded as the establishment. Cameron’s campaigning has only helped to stoke these suspicions.

Yet again referendum politics has failed in the UK. Instead of a referendum on the EU we are now having a referendum on something entirely different.  Therein lays the genius of populist nationalist politics. It’s the same politics that Trump is exploiting to gain support in the US. A vote to leave is now a vote for this kind of politics, a brand of politics that is an abuse of democracy and an insult to the electorate. This brand of politics is truly something to be afraid of.

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