This essay, on Sajid Javid’s new White Paper on immigration, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on José Mourniho.) It was published in the Observer, 23 December 2018, under the headline ‘The new immigration proposals are economic and political nonsense’.

‘We have become illiberal and lowered quotas at a time when we have an acute shortage of labour.’ So observed the cabinet minister Richard Crossman in his diaries in 1966, after the Labour government, fearful of public hostility, slashed Commonwealth immigration into Britain.

The conflict between those who see immigration as an economic necessity and those who fear its political consequences has long shaped immigration debate. One consequence has been incoherent policy. That’s as true of the home secretary Sajid Javid’s White Paper on immigration published last week as it was in Crossman’s day.

The White Paper has two fundamental aims: to end freedom of movement and to prioritise skilled migration. What it lacks is what has often been missing from the immigration debate: a nuanced understanding of the economic and political considerations.

Some commentators see immigration as a good because it boosts economic growth. Others insist that what business leaders really want is to use immigration to lower wages. Both claims are true.

Most studies show immigration boosts GDP. There is little evidence that it increases unemployment or drives down wages. Immigration can affect the wages of those at the bottom of the ladder. But the impact is tiny and more than compensated for by the benefits, for instance, taxes from migrants helping to protect public services.

Yet, while immigration might be economically beneficial, it is also the case that businesses often try to exploit migrants as cheap labour and as a means of reducing workers’ bargaining power. This can be as crude as hiring migrants below accepted rates or as subtle as the call in Germany to suspend the minimum wage to help asylum seekers ‘integrate’.

The response should not be to see migrants as enemies but to organise with them against attempts to lower living standards. From the 1960s onwards, migrant workers have been central to the trade union movement in Britain. Today unions such as the IWGB are playing an increasingly important role in protecting the rights and living standards of all workers, particularly within the gig economy. In such organisations is embodied the link between defending migrants’ rights and workers’ rights.

Immigration has become the most potent symbol of a world out of control and of ordinary people having little say in policies that affect their lives. Economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the imposition of austerity, the growth of inequality – have combined with political shifts, such as the erosion of trade union power and the transformation of the Labour party, to make many feel economically marginalised and politically abandoned.

Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be the means through which many perceive the changes. Hostility towards migrants only makes it more difficult to build the kinds of solidarity movements that can truly ‘take back control’.

Against this background, Javid’s White Paper gives us the worst of all worlds. Its aim to restrict low-skilled immigration will have a deleterious economic impact; the white paper estimates that it will lower GDP by between 0.4% and 0.9% by 2025.

The White Paper does not mention the Conservative manifesto commitment to reduce net immigration to ‘tens of thousands’. It proposes instead a new arbitrary line – a minimum annual salary to define a ‘skilled worker’. It floats the idea of a £30,000 threshold, first suggested in a Migration Advisory Committee report.

The divide between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ work is hazy. Many skilled jobs pay less than the threshold. The salary floor is set more by the desire to be seen controlling immigration than by the need to make policy coherent.

For unskilled workers, the White Paper proposes one-year, non-renewable work visas. This will increase the ‘churn’ of foreign workers and may deepen hostility towards them. It will certainly make it more difficult to unionise or build the kinds of solidarity that come with living in a country over time. It provides not protection for workers but a gift to exploitative businesses.

Nor will the proposals in the White Paper reduce political fears about immigration. Those fears have been generated not by immigration itself but by wider economic and social changes that have created a sense of dispossession and voicelessness. Until we address those wider issues – from rising inequality to the erosion of working-class communities to a system in which ordinary people’s voices seem unheard – it will make little difference at what level immigration is set. The world will continue to feel out of control.


  1. damon

    Whatever the government does or what is or isn’t popular in the country regarding immigration, the population of Britain is going to continue to rise, primarily because of immigration.

    And talking of “immigration” in such general terms is a bit misleading really, as it lumps very different trends and realities together as if they had a lot in common. For example, French citizens living in central London and African asylum seekers living on council estates in east London. You can’t really conflate the effect they have on the GDP of the country as they’re so different. And what positive effects they have on providing taxes and funding for government etc.

    As for “nuances” within the debates on the subject, all sides have nuances they would rather ignore.
    I am convinced that is so. If it’s too “controversial” then better ignore it.

  2. Cable Strada

    Nor will the proposals in the White Paper reduce political fears about immigration. Those fears have been generated not by immigration itself but by wider economic and social changes that have created a sense of dispossession and voicelessness.

    I don’t agree. Racists and white supremacists fear immigration with good reason: because they know that it means the decline and, in the end, the disappearance of their power and ability to harm, marginalize and exclude BAME communities. In the United States, immigration has turned the once solidly Republican state of California into a bastion of progressive values, with a strong and growing Democrat majority. Texas and other Republican states will follow suit. Why else are Trump and his hardcore supporters so fixated on The Wall? Of course, The Wall won’t stop immigration and the end of white America even if it’s built, but it’s a potent physical symbol to assuage primitive, crocodile-brain fears.

    In this country, immigration steadily increases the number of guaranteed votes for Jeremy and Diane, because (as I’ve pointed out before) migrants to this country have no interest in fascist-friendly “Enlightenment values” such as free speech. They want better lives for themselves and their children, which is why they want racists and white supremacists silenced by any means necessary. Here, from the pages of your sister paper, is proof of what I said in an earlier comment. “Free speech” is the manure on which fascism grows. No manure, no fascism:

    Revealed: how Italy’s populists used Facebook to win power

    [snip] Salvini, whose Facebook audience of 3.4 million is larger than for any other politician in Europe, amassed the largest total of likes and shares for videos and live broadcasts. The far-right leader has intensified his use of social media since becoming Italy’s interior minister, using the platform to exploit tensions over immigration, publish reported “hate lists” of his enemies and provide Italians with a running commentary on his personal and family life.

    Salvini’s most popular election video, according to the analysis, was a clip from a European parliamentary speech he incorrectly claimed had been “censored” by the mainstream media. “Be warned,” he says in the clip, “over the last few years Italy has taken in 600,000 fake refugees, not escaping war but bringing war here.” [snip]

    Salvini in particular proved adept at exploiting [racist white] frustration through Facebook live videos such as one broadcast from a wall opposite a migrant holding centre. “They want to eat well and be at peace, and who pays for them?” he says. “We do.” In another, broadcast from inside a moving car, Salvini complains about a national song contest that featured lyrics about political refugees over “those who were born here”.

    By stamping out so-called “free speech”, Jeremy and Diane will ensure that no British version of Salvini will leverage racism and xenophobia to win power. I fully endorse your support for the freest possible movement of migrants, but I envisage a quite different future resulting from it. A progressive Britain will have no place for racism, sexism and Islamophobia, or for the “free speech” on which all forms of prejudice and hate are presently feeding and fattening in Italy, America, Hungary, Brazil, France, Germany, Sweden, etc, etc.

    • damon

      California has turned Democrat indeed. But it’s a state of stark contrasts too.
      The liberal white elite in charge of the politics and the tech industry are insulating themselves within wealthy bubbles and gated communities. Many counties in the interior have been left to decline.
      It could well have something to do with the big demographic change in the state in the last fifty years.

      See a California man from the rural interior who has been talking about this issue for a long time now.

  3. Frederick Peterson

    “Against this background, Javid’s White Paper gives us the worst of all worlds. Its aim to restrict low-skilled immigration will have a deleterious economic impact; the white paper estimates that it will lower GDP by between 0.4% and 0.9% by 2025.”

    However, if we are going to deploy the ‘economic’ argument as a reason to promote yet more immigration it is GDP per capita, and not GDP, that is the important metric. If maximising the latter were the greater imperative then the optimum immigration policy from a strictly economic perspective would be to open the borders to the widest possible extent. Even if the government had then to borrow the money necessary to sustain the millions of unemployables who would arrive there would be a beneficial impact on GDP. On the hand, restricting low-skilled immigration would likely result in a lower than projected population by 2025, very possibly by several times the projected ‘shortfall’ in GDP of up to 0.9%. That being the case, GDP per capita would be higher than projected and we would all be (at least theoretically) better off.

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