James Meadway challenges the anti-immigration hysteria and argues that Britain is a better place to live because of the contribution made by migrants
Ukip have won their second Parliamentary election in Rochester and Strood on the back of a campaign fixating on the issue of migration. They have ridden the press hysteria over Bulgarians and Romanians all the way to Westminster.
This hysteria over Eastern Europeans is racist, plain and simple. It is exactly as racist as the hysteria that earlier greeted Asian migrants, or Afro-Carribeans, or Jews, or Irish. At its heart, it means scapegoating people who themselves have done nothing wrong for – genuine - social and economic problems.
For most of us, the Coalition’s “recovery” has produced little. Average real wages have fallen, year after year, for six years. This is the longest sustained decline in living standards, for most people, since modern records began in 1856. Those at the top of society, meanwhile, the richest 1,000, have seen their wealth double over the same period of time.
Yet Ukip don’t want you to blame those at the top. They want you to blame a neighbour – someone just like yourself.
Ukip are parasites. They pretend to be “anti-establishment”, but are led by a private-school educated former stockbroker. In their first election win, they replaced Tory MP Douglas Carswell with… Ukip MP Douglas Carswell. In their second election win, they replaced Tory MP Mark Reckless with… Ukip MP Mark Reckless.
Forgive us for failing to spot the radical change here.
None of the economic myths around immigration stand up to serious scrutiny.
1Recent immigrants are not “spongers”. New research from University College London shows that between 2001 and 2011, migrants from the EU contributed £20bn more in taxes than they took out in public spending and using public services. Because migrants come here to work, they pay taxes. Very, very few people will trek across a continent to try and claim the UK’s miserly benefits. And the NHS, like other public services, would collapse without migrant workers.
2Recent migration has not driven up unemployment. The National Institute of Economic Research (NIESR) looked at the effects of recent migration on unemployment across the country. They found no clear evidence that recent migrants drove up unemployment. Their research is consistent with findings by other researchers. Migrants from the EU tend not to increase unemployment because people move when work is actually available – again, people will not usually travel huge distances on the off-chance of work. They move when work is there.
3Recent migration has not, in general, affected the wages of residents. Different pieces of research have found contradictory impacts of migration on the wages of existing UK residents. Some research suggests that migration has had a very small positive impact. Other research has found a very small negative impact. Migration can have a positive impact on wages because the work of migrants can support, rather than compete with, the work of those already resident. For example, the worker behind the till at Pret A Manger needs drivers to supply ingredients, warehouse workers, and so on.
Migration went up in the 2000s, but so did wages. Migration has risen in the 2010s, and wages have fallen. There is no clear link.
Wages have fallen because big corporations and the wealthy have failed to invest to create well-paid jobs, instead relying zero hour contracts and falling pay to boost their profits. (Profits are now at record levels.) If unions were stronger, this would not be so easy for them. But unions will not be made stronger by restricting immigration. You don’t strengthen unions by dividing workers amongst themselves.
Most of us want to live and enjoying living in a multicultural society, where outright racism is no longer tolerated. This society is a direct result of earlier migration and the contribution migrants made, and Britain is a better place to live because of it. We cannot allow Ukip, or their dimwitted me-too followers in the main parties, to turn the clock back on this huge gain.
Migration myths should be challenged whenever they appear – whether from Ukip, or those claiming to support Labour.
It won’t be enough to present these facts, however. A campaign is needed to turn the tide, just as happened when black and Asian migrants were earlier facing discrimination. But because these myths feed on real social and economic problems, we need also to present solutions. If Labour can’t or won’t do that, it falls to the rest of the left to do so. The People’s Assembly is the best means we have to present an argument against austerity, and for an economy based on people’s needs.
Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).