No more excuses: Stand up for immigrants

"Everything is still to play for. Freedom of movement can still be salvaged"
"Everything is still to play for. Freedom of movement can still be salvaged"
Ian Dunt By

This week's vote came as a body blow to anyone on the liberal wing of politics. A campaign based on myths and distortion, which appealed to the most base instincts of the British public, succeeded. It does not matter that it only just succeeded. Millions voted for it. Liberalism lost.

Let's not kid ourselves - as many liberal eurosceptics are trying to do - that it was won on the basis of arguments about democracy or sovereignty. It was won on the basis of immigration. Nigel Farage's dream of leaving the EU only picked up momentum when he twinned the issue with migration in the public imagination. Despite Boris Johnson and Michael Gove's conciliatory noises about inclusivity and diversity yesterday, their campaign was defined by dog-whistle messages on Turkish immigration and an obsessive repetition of the word 'control'. Farage sunk much lower, to the level of Nazi-era propaganda, a theme he reprised in his victory speech for "decent people".

This is what happens when we make excuses for those who hate immigration. For decades we've been told to understand the concerns of those who are afraid and angry about it. Tony Blair may have operated a liberal immigration policy when he was prime minister, but the rhetoric from him and his home secretaries was consciously modelled on the Sun. The policy game and the public relations game had no connection whatsoever. Gordon Brown, who now frames himself as some sort of unifying elder statesman, dragged the BNP slogan 'British jobs for British workers' into the mainstream. David Cameron and George Osborne, both private supporters of immigration, encouraged ministers to go on baseless campaigns against health or benefit tourism, despite knowing it was all nonsense. Cameron made a promise to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands, knowing it was not in his power to do so. Then, when he failed, he did it again.

Well guess what? After a while the public see that your words and your actions are doing two completely different things. And then we get the catastrophe of this week, an explosion of irrationality and self-harm.


Which legitimate grievance are we supposed to acknowledge? The outright demand for cultural purity from southern Little England? The false claim from the post-industrial north that immigrants are stealing their jobs? It's all lies.

The first people to suffer from a reduction in immigration will be the lower-income groups who predominantly voted Out. Migration contributed £20 billion to our economy between 2001 and 2011. A two-thirds reduction in immigration would reduce the size of the economy by nine per cent by 2065. Even with immigration of 140,000 a year, our debt will reach 99% of GDP in 50 years. Without immigration, it’ll be 174%. Who is going to be the main victim of the cuts required to address that? The higher income voters who mostly opted for Remain? Or the lower income groups who mostly voted Out?

Labour MPs now walk around saying that immigration reduces domestic wages, that the rich man has got a cheaper plumber, but the indigenous plumber has had to reduce his fees. Usually this argument is framed as an assault on the 'white working class', as if we don't have any black or Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi working class people in this country.

Well that's a lie too. We have no idea if immigration reduces wages and in fact many studies show it does the precise opposite. PwC research suggests it raises the median income by 0.7%. LSE found areas with high immigration did not have lower wage growth.

The Bank of England found that there might be a two per cent drop in income where there's been a ten per cent rise in immigration, but then EU migration stood at two per cent between 2008 and 2015, so this amounts to a 0.4% income fall over seven years. The Policy Studies Institute found a "quite small" effect on lower wages, with a 0.75% (£3.90 a week for a full time worker on the average wage) decrease where over 10% of workers in a company are from the EU. Only 15% of workplaces have more than ten per cent EU workers. If you're looking for the reason people are struggling to get by, this isn't it.

Immigration brings in working age people who pay the taxes we need to fund the pensions and health care of the baby boomers who just voted to have them thrown out. It increases demand, it increases productivity, it increases wages, it increases GDP.

And when you actually ask critics of immigration about the negative impact on them, most of them admit there isn't one. Just 24% of the public believe immigration has had a negative effect on where they live - the exact same proportion as the number who feel it has had a positive one. Forty seven per cent say has had no effect whatsoever. Fifty-one-per-cent of people say immigration has had no impact on them personally, while a quarter say it has been good for them. Just 19% say it has been bad.

The young, who are the ones competing for jobs with immigrants in this supposedly terrible assault on British workers, are the most positive about immigration. People aged 18-to-34 are twice as likely as those aged over 55 to think EU immigration has been good for Britain. And dig into those figures a little deeper and see what happens. Despite being more negative about immigration, people over 55 are more likely to say they haven't been affected by immigration (59%) compared to those aged 18-to-34 (42%).

Compare the maps of areas with a high immigrant population with areas which vote Ukip and they are like opposites. Ukip support is strongest where there are fewest immigrants. The anti-immigrant party is concentrated in remote and coastal towns, immigrants in major urban areas.

Their concerns are myth and nonsense and yet we are told to understand them. We're not allowed to dismiss it as small-minded, ignorant, and fictitious. We have to 'listen', we have to 'comprehend'. We have to say that it's not racist to talk about immigration. But it's not a debate they want. They get that all the time. What they want is to be able to drone on and on about immigration without anyone pointing out they're wrong.

Now I have to listen to European friends in England suddenly feel scared and unwelcome. I have to listen to them make plans for how they would leave if it comes to that, for how to secure their immigration status here if the rules change, or even debate if they want to, considering millions of English people supported a campaign which was so brazenly xenophobic. I have to listen to those who have spend decades in this country suddenly ask if the place they call home respects or even wants them.

And the response of many liberals is to tell us to listen to the people committing this act of aggression against them? To 'listen' and 'understand' the made up concerns of the people scaring them? What good has it done, pretending this stuff is valid? All these years of vindicating lies about wages and cultural harmony have accomplished nothing. They made it worse. They encouraged it.

If you want to do something for post-industrial northern areas then get out there and support trade unions. Support parties which will legislate for decent wages for decent work, and decent education to allows workers to compete for it. Get out there and highlight how the decoupling of wages and productivity is at the heart of the powerlessness lower and middle income groups are feeling. Get out there and highlight the Laval and Viking cases in the European court, which did so much to weaken trade unions and collective bargaining.

These are real things, with empirical underpinning, which would have an impact on people’s lives. Jumping on board with the lies people have been told by the Express about how it’s all the fault of a family from Romania isn’t helping those left behind by a capitalist economy. It’s hurting them, because it addresses a myth while the pressures which are really damaging their quality of life continue, without any political effort to correct them.

This was a culture war and our side lost. Millions of us understand the benefits of immigration and love living in a country where people come from all over the world. We don’t want to live in the England of suburban golf clubs, with middle-aged white men stuffing bland food into their mouths while bleating out their lurid sense of entitlement. It’s time to stop being ashamed of words like multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. These are proud, honourable words. They are good things to believe in.

We lost the vote, but the negotiations for Brexit will soon be underway. Everything is still to play for. Freedom of movement can still be salvaged. Or we may, as Daniel Hannan was saying yesterday, be able to ensure that we at least protect freedom of labour, so people can move around Europe and the UK on the condition of a job offer. But we can only reduce the damage of this week’s vote if we express our support for immigration loud and proud. No more excuses. No more pretending to ‘understand’ things which are not true. Immigration makes this country better and those who say otherwise are wrong.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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