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Immigration or Austerity?
29 Nov, 2017

We need to examine the causes of Brexit and build a fairer society

London4Europe member George Stevenson looks at the causes of Brexit. He sees the importance of austerity as a driver rather than hostility to immigrants. Key for the Remain movement is to find ways of building a fairer society.

Was immigration the most important factor?

Many politicians, and some in the media, seem to have unilaterally decided that immigration was the most important factor in the EU referendum result, and have developed their policies as a result.  However, it’s far from clear if this really is the case- no-one can know what’s in someone else’s mind, particularly in an issue as complex as this. Individual reasons for voting ‘Leave’ may vary widely.  Many ‘Leave’ voters may not be racist or xenophobic (i.e. having a specific and intrinsic dislike/distrust of foreigners), and it’s unhelpful to categorise them as such.  Stuart Maconie, in his recent book ‘Long Road from Jarrow’ makes a much more nuanced case for the reasons why many might have voted ‘Leave’, even from the perspective of someone who thinks that Brexit is a bad idea.

It is important, then, to think about the underlying reasons why people may have voted as they did, and why immigration may have been a factor for some, to have any hope of persuading them and winning the argument on Brexit.  What then, might these be?

Pressure on Pay: Immigration or Austerity?

Firstly, there have been many allegations over the years about immigrants ‘stealing’ jobs from British workers, or depressing wages for existing workers.  Research over the last few years, particularly by the Migration Observatory doesn’t show much evidence for either of these, but it does highlight that the effects can be more acute for those in lower-paid jobs, in particular during periods of recession. This research may not cover the effects on the self-employed, though, who don’t benefit so much from the minimum wage or guaranteed holiday periods. Therefore, it’s likely that the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession will have accentuated the effects of immigration in some areas, although immigration won’t have been the root cause.

Many people haven’t had much of a pay increase over this period, particularly public sector workers, but also other workers across the economy.  At the same time, inflation has been running at 2-4%, generally in excess of pay, leading to a gradual erosion of living standards.  This has a disproportionate effect on the lower paid; those earning more being insulated by their greater wealth.  Importantly, someone doesn’t have to be ‘poor’ to suffer these effects - it can be incredibly dispiriting to constantly feel you’ve only just got enough money, even with a regular income.

Austerity must take much of the blame here, with economic recovery not having been shared across the workforce.   In these circumstances, it’s perhaps understandable that some may have been persuaded that controlling immigration or somehow getting rid of those pesky foreigners would free up jobs, reduce pressure on wages or allow funds to be released for the native population.

Pressure on Public Services: Immigration or Austerity?

Austerity also seems to be behind one of the other common complaints- that immigration is increasing pressure on public services, in particular education and the NHS.  Again, local effects can be more acute, particularly where there have been proportionately large numbers of new arrivals, and in areas where the population has otherwise been fairly homogenous.  However, in a wealthy country such as the UK, it should be possible to provide some additional funding in mitigation for areas affected by this.  The scrapping of the Migration Impact Fund in 2010 must rank as a particularly short-sighted decision in this case.

Funding constraints on the NHS and a difficulty in recruiting staff lead to longer waiting times for appointments or treatment, whilst there is a long-standing problem, particularly in cities, about the availability of social or affordable housing.  Existing teaching and healthcare staff may feel overworked and subject to pay constraints, and leave their jobs, exacerbating the problem.  In these circumstances, once again, getting rid of the foreigners may seem to be an attractive way of somehow freeing up space for those born here.

However, austerity has been a conscious choice made by politicians since the financial crisis, and just as with Brexit, there’s no inevitability about this being the right choice.  The USA has followed a more expansionary economic policy since 2008, and as a result, its economy has recovered faster and more fully that Britain’s (albeit maybe not enough to prevent some voting for Trump).  Iceland allowed its banks to fail, and after a difficult few years, seems to be recovering well.

We need to Debate Alternative Solutions

Therefore, we should change the terms of the debate, and start discussing alternative solutions, which address these underlying concerns.  Economic policy is one of the most important of these, along with policies to encourage job creation in areas with high unemployment. Improving education, allowing people to have wider choices in choosing jobs and a career, is also important.  Finally, changing the behaviour of private sector employers, so that they take a longer-term view on investment, trading and staff development, and don’t use ‘shareholder value’ as the sole measure of success, is critical.   At the London for Europe talk on 13 November, Hugo Dixon of InFacts made a persuasive case for promoting a fairer Britain both for its own sake as well as a way of helping change public opinion.

Remainers must Promote a Positive Vision 

As well as opposing Brexit on principle, pro-Remain groups need to develop a positive vision for change that will address people’s underlying anxieties, and seek to influence the various political parties.  With this, we can win hearts & minds and change opinions, which gives us a greater chance of defeating Brexit.