This anti-immigration arms race exemplifies everything that’s wrong with politicians

Ryan Bourne
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No party is willing to speak up for immigration, as Ukip frames the debate

"Race relations/immigration” is now ranked by voters as the most important issue facing Britain, according to Ipsos MORI. On 39 per cent, it’s above the economy and the NHS – areas the Conservatives and Labour want at the centre of their 2015 campaigns.

This concern is not new. Even in the 1990s, when net migration was 60,000 per year, the public wanted lower levels of immigration. What’s different now – with net migration at 243,000 – is that Ukip is framing the issue and no party is willing to make the intellectual case that immigration is good for the economy. The Tories are a confused mix of Ukip-fearing euroscepticism and economic liberalism, Labour is petrified of losing working class votes to Ukip, and the Lib Dems have simply stopped being listened to. This vacuum is allowing an arms race to develop, with parties calling for ever tighter migration restrictions to assuage voter concerns.

The Tory pledge to get net migration down to the tens of thousands was doomed to fail, given the government’s inability to control our borders with the EU. So the parties want to “go further”. They all desire tightening access to public services and welfare, and requirements to speak English – harmless ways of reflecting voter support for the idea of contribution and the preservation of British culture. Yet now some politicians suggest curbs on free movement of people within the EU. The belief seems to be that the voters have spoken: lower numbers or else. This is worrying, as the arguments to suggest immigration is bad for Britain are very weak.

There is little statistically significant evidence that immigration (particularly from the EU) has led to fewer jobs for native workers, for example. This is not unexpected – there is no more reason to suspect a larger population from high immigration will lead to displacement of British workers than that female emancipation in the workforce would lead to fewer men in work. Immigrants also create demands of their own, complement existing workers, and fill gaps in the labour market – often creating new opportunities.

Even on pay, there is only limited evidence of a very small downward effect on real wages at the low-skilled end of the labour market. But even this need not be seen as just a “cost” to UK workers overall – cheaper products and services benefit Britons too. Further, any effect is trivial relative to technological change, domestic skills problems and the cost of living. Immigrants are more likely to be younger, working and thus net contributors to the public finances – meaning they facilitate a lower overall tax burden on UK workers than if migration were restricted. And the real unseen gains are the interchange of ideas and specialisation, which raise overall productivity and pay levels in the economy.

Some believe the UK is “overcrowded”, and immigration puts a huge strain on public services. This is just scaremongering. The UK is less crowded than Belgium or the Netherlands. Just 10 per cent of our land is developed. There are of course some pinch-points with public services, but these are failures associated with central planning – you rarely hear supermarkets complain that immigration is not allowing them to plan appropriately where to put their stores.

Far from showing how in touch they are, adopting further economically-damaging migration restrictions to chase votes, on the false promise this will solve voters’ problems, would exemplify everything that’s wrong with the political classes. Politicians who believe in Britain as a dynamic, open economy should be willing to extol the benefits of free movement – not just economically for us, but on the principle of liberty too.

This includes eurosceptics who believe in free market economics. Ukip has effectively linked restricting immigration to our EU membership. But it’s perfectly consistent to believe the UK’s immigration policy should be decided domestically, should be non-discriminatory against non-Europeans, but that we should remain liberal and open. The long-term consequences for the UK of substantial protectionism on this could be very damaging indeed.

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