Government gets nasty to give the illusion of control over immigration

Figures released today showed net migration rising to 318,000, its highest level since 2005 and a far cry from David Cameron’s promise to cut net migration to the tens of thousands. With free movement of labour guaranteed between countries in the EU, this was never a sensible promise to make. The truth is, as long as free movement remains in place, no government can have any real control over net migration whatsoever. For as long as the UK economy out-performs it’s European neighbours, net migration will be destined to remain high. This has always been the elephant in the room.

To try and mask this rather large elephant, the Government of David Cameron has talked up all sorts of measures to ‘tackle’ immigration which will do nothing of the sort. Today, they decided to sink to a new low in an attempt to appear to be doing something – anything. They’ve previously tried to blame the rules around social security benefits on high immigration, but there is no evidence that what has been labelled ‘benefit tourism’ actually exists. Cameron’s latest foray into ‘being seen to do something’ territory is to go after the right wing presses’ favourite bogey man – the illegal immigrant.

Cameron today announced plans to legislate to allow police to confiscate the earnings of anyone found to be working illegally. It is estimated there may be up to 300,000 in the UK who have overstayed their visas, but how many of those are working is not known. 300,000 is less than half the number of migrants that came here just in 2014. In short, it is not a big problem, and certainly not something that is going to make a dent in the net migration figures (if that is indeed its intention).

Over-blowing this issue and pretending it has anything to do with high net migration is a rather nasty thing to do, because, like the so-called ‘racist vans‘, it can create a climate of fear and suspicion in communities already feeling alienated from British society. This is purely about political expediency, not addressing a problem that actually needs to be solved.

Cameron also announced his intention today to see if he could also limit the numbers of high-skilled migrants coming from outside the EU. He can’t do anything about unskilled EU migrants coming here, so this is all he has left, but it’s exceptionally dumb. So dumb and nasty all on one day. Must be a Conservative Government.


Tory plans to limit free movement will do nothing of the sort

The Conservative Party have been making a lot of noise about free movement of labour recently, saying they want to reform the rules in the face of ‘public concern’ (i.e. increased support for UKIP). Nigel Farage, champion of the ‘People’s Army’ says the Tories will just look to tinker around the edges, but will not be able to alter the fundamental principal of free movement. I agree with Nigel!

I saw Iain Duncan Smith quoted today as saying there was consensus within Europe to limit access to benefits for EU migrants. This is where I suspect the tinkering will be focused. They will make a big deal out of this and come back from the negotiations with the EU triumphant about the concessions they have secured. The thing is though, if they do manage to tighten up access to benefits, nothing will really have changed.

Moving to a new country for the purposes of claiming benefits has been labelled ‘benefit tourism’. But does it actually exist? This article from last year concludes there is very little evidence for it, and that the primary reasons for moving are for work or family reasons. The benefits that EU migrants would be eligible for are anyway extremely limited and it the person is not working, they probably won’t be eligible to benefits either. If they can’t or won;t find a job, they could even be legally removed under EU law. This blog gives quite a good summary of the situation.

So it seems likely, the Tories are looking to achieve only as much as they think they can spin into a victory, which may be little more than applying existing EU law more rigidly. Not sure that is going to convince the Kippers to come home.

What is the real issue with free movement then? It’s the ‘unlimited’ part that’s the problem. Within the restriction that people coming here must be looking to work, there is no limit on the number of people from the EU who can come here. If we were in a situation where every economy in Europe was booming, this may not be an issue as most people will be able to find work in their home country. Sadly this has not been the case in Europe for some time, and leads to a situation where people seek to move from the austerity-ravaged economies of the Eurozone, to the less ravaged (and now growing) UK.

This is not to say immigration is bad. It’s not. Allowing unlimited numbers of EU migrants to come here for work just doesn’t seem sensible. What’s wrong with using a similar system to Australia or Canada, or indeed the system we have for non-EU migrants? The Tories will never make this demand of the EU. I don’t think that’s even what they want. To get some control back would mean leaving the EU, or coming up with some clever ruse to achieve the same result.

Iain Duncan Smith: High immigration caused by Brits not taking jobs

The Independent reports that Iain Duncan Smith is due to make a speech today in which he will claim that immigration to the UK is high because social security claimants are refusing to take jobs in order to remain on benefits. It quotes from his speech:

“Businesses needed the labour and because of the way our benefit system was constructed, too few of the economically inactive took the jobs on offer.”

So as well as being responsible for the deficit and the national debt, out of work claimants are now to blame for immigration as well!

Why aren’t Labour doing better?

I blogged yesterday about Labour complaints of media bias. While it seems clear that Britain’s media is pretty conservative in nature and in favour of neo-liberal capitalism, I don’t really buy that as the reason why Labour are struggling to get their message across. After all, the modern Labour Party is pretty conservative and full of neo-liberals itself. It seems to many of us that there’s little to distinguish between Labour and the Tories. Could this be a more plausible reason for their closeness in the polls?

UKIP’s success has come on the back of hammering two simple messages – i) the UK should get out of the EU, largely because ii) membership means open borders to 500m people. To bolster the effect of their message, they have appealed to people’s innate fear of the unknown and the different to fuel concern about the number of new arrivals who are ‘not like you’ or are ‘after your job’. This tactic is as old as the hills, but should be relatively easy to counteract.

While there will always be racists who will vote for far-right parties, most people are not racist, but many do have concerns that are quite easy to link to immigration (if you had an incentive to do so). So what are these?

  • Rising rents
  • Lack of social housing
  • High long-term unemployment
  • Long waits at A&E of for a GP’s appointment
  • Lack of school places

If you are struggling to get a council house but hear stories of a Roma family jumping the queue, or a young person unable to find work and being labelled a scrounger while the person who serves you in the pub has a ‘foreign’ accent, if you don’t get your first choice of school or can’t get an appointment with your GP for a week, it is quite easy for politicians to take those frustrations and blame it on ‘uncontrolled immigration’. A lot of people swallow this and vote for the party promising to do something about it. Whether any of these issues are actually due to immigration or not doesn’t matter at the moment because no party other than UKIP is offering any solutions. UKIP are right that there is an open-door policy to EU citizens regardless of quality, and no one else seems to want to argue directly why they think this is a good thing. This is nevertheless the position of Labour, Conservatives and the Lib Dems.

So back to Labour then, what should they do? They are in favour of free movement of labour within the EU, so it seems to me they need to address the issues that people are currently blaming on immigration. Ed Miliband has actually tried to raise each of the five issues on my list above, and has grabbed a bit of attention each time. The problem has been, his proposed ‘solutions’ are so inconsequential, people sort of shrug on hearing them. So what? is the refrain. Miliband has proposed very timid proposals on job creation, energy prices and private sector rents, and has been likened to Mugabe, Stalin and Hugo Chavez by the Tory party and certain people in the media. If this is the reaction to very modest proposals, why not go the whole hog and actually come up with something that will really stir things up?

How about proposing something like:

1. Building 100,000 social houses a year for the next 5 years

2. Guarantee work for all who need a job, working in the third or public sectors (limited to those who’ve been in the UK for at least 5 years)

3. Large programme of school building

4. Moratorium on all tenders for provision of NHS services

5. Renationalise something – polls consistently show majorities in favour of nationalised water, energy, postal services and rail.

We should also not forget that while UKIP did well, 66% of people didn’t bother to vote! Why not? A large number obviously don’t see any value in voting. If we had a well-funded opposition party (and money is important) selling a genuine alternative, maybe more people would turn out on polling day. If it’s a choice between the blue Tories, the red Tories, the yellow Tories, or the Purple Tories, why would anyone bother? It seems pretty clear that socialism isn’t coming back. The name alone strikes fear into many, but ISTM there would be support for anyone proposing to ‘tame’ capitalism, keeping the good bits, but intervening strongly to eliminate the bad.


The little things just seem to matter more to our politicians

Two announcements seemingly made out of the blue this week reminded me that politicians are very good at shouting about things that are at best symptoms of a wider problem, while completely ignoring the real issues.

The first came on Monday, with George Osborne’s announcement that fees on payday loans were to be capped. Very good you might say, but is this a solution to anything significant? The problem is not really the fees, but the scandal that so many are driven to take out these loans in the first place. If you do nothing to tackle the underlying causes, it doesn’t matter how you regulate these loans, people will still need to seek out alternative sources of finance, and payday loans – even with capped fees – will still be pretty bad news for most. So a solution to the problem should start with seeking to increase the number of secure jobs and the level of wages so that fewer people need to take out payday loans in the first place. Any discussion of that taking place? A bit from Labour maybe, but detail free and pretty weak.

The second announcement came today. Cameron has been all over the TV today talking tough on benefits for EU migrants. From what he was saying, you could be forgiven for thinking some sort of crackdown is about to take place, when actually, all he’s really talking about is at best enforcing the existing rules more effectively, and at worst just announcing what is already happening. This article from the European Commission is quite a good mythbuster of EU migrant’s rights to benefits. At the moment we also have the Government criticising Labour for a lack of transitional controls in 2004, and Labour criticising the Government for not extending controls for Romanians and Bulgarians which lapse on January 1st.

This is really all a side issue though. Without wishing to go all UKIP on you, the real issue should be about whether or not free movement of labour (and capital) within the EU is a good thing at all. I don’t think it is, because regardless of what you think about immigration in general ISTM that having no controls whatsoever about who can come here to work from 27 other counties is a very dumb idea. Surely each nation state has the right to decide who it allows to come and live within it’s borders? It might decide more migrants are needed, maybe less, but without free movement of labour, the ability to decide is removed from nation states. I can’t see that the benefits outweigh the costs.

These are two issues then that the main parties largely agree on (however much they pretend otherwise), and there is no discussion taking place about other alternatives. Energy prices is another example. You’d think there was a huge disagreement between the Government and Labour about how best to make them more affordable, but when you actually look at their positions, they really aren’t that far apart. A real solution would probably involve some new state energy company or total nationalisation, but this is never even discussed.

When you watch politicians debate on TV, what they’re arguing fiercely about is not over opposing visions for the country, but some minor administrative matters (e.g “You wasted £xm on this IT project. Well you’re wasting this much now”). It’s quite unedifying and largely prevents more important discussions taking place.

I don’t have a solution to this problem, it may be an intractable one. This is just an observation that, in the grand scheme of things, ‘big’ announcements like we’ve had this week are actually rather trivial, and despite the sound and fury in arenas like PMQs, the actual differences between the main parties are still incredibly small.

Why we should leave the EU

This is a quick post on the issue of the EU, which has been claimed by the right wing as their noble cause, as popularised by UKIP and Tory MPs like Peter Bone. Today former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson has called for the UK to leave the EU. I suspect his motives for doing so are questionable, but does he have a point?

The prevailing view on the left seems to be strongly in favour of the UK’s EU membership, with the feeling that leaving would be unthinkable. These seem to be the common arguments in favour of staying in, and why I think they are misguided:

1) EU regulations on employment rights, environmental protections etc would be torn up if we left and it’d be like Victorian Britain all over again. This seems a strange sort of argument to me. Of course, there are a lot of people who would love to tear up a lot of these regulations, but we should have more confidence in our ability to win the argument about the importance of retaining these protections whether inside or outside of the EU. We shouldn’t need an external body to protect us from the more extreme elements on the right.

2) Around 3m jobs would be put at risk if we left the EU. I’ve seen this claim a lot, and I’m not sure where it comes from. Obviously, a lot of people work for companies that trade with the EU, but I think people over estimate the impact on trade our leaving the EU would have. The UK is a huge economy. The idea that the remaining EU nations would not want to trade with us on favourable terms seems unlikely to me.

3) British workers wouldn’t be able to go and work in Europe any more and millions of Brits would have to come home. Again, I don’t think this is as big an issue as it is made out to be. It’s likely there would be new restrictions on labour movements, but skilled workers would always be welcome to work in other countries, as we welcome skilled workers from outside the EU today. People that have retired to Spain are not going to be sent home, as their spending power is a great benefit to the Spanish economy.

Here are some other reasons why our EU membership does not benefit us.

  • There are a lot of things in the various treaties we are signatories to which tie the hands of our government. Deficit limits and the prohibition of using the full power of the central bank severely limit the ability of government to react economic crises. You can argue (maybe rightly) that in a crisis, these rules are routinely ignored, but moves are afoot to make these rules even more binding on nations.
  • State aid rules mean it’s very difficult to implement an active industrial policy, which I would argue is vital for long run growth. Government needs to be able to ‘pick winners’ and nurture their growth. State aid rules don’t allow this.
  • Immigration. Most of the evidence on immigration shows it has a strongly positive impact on the UK economy. This post makes that case wellBut does this mean we should be banned from imposing any limits on immigration from the EU? I don’t think so. It may be that we decide it’s in our interest to let anyone who wants to come here to work do so, but it should be a decision for the national government to make, and they should be free to impose limits if that’s in the best interests of the nation.

Above then are just a few quick points by way of suggesting that although one’s position on the EU seems to have been reduced to a split between left (pro) and right (anti), it shouldn’t be. There are strong arguments against our membership of the EU, and they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. As ever, feel free to disagree, or suggest things I’ve missed in the above.