The Telegraph’s Morning Briefing email, produced by Stephen Bush, always provides a good summary of the day’s political highlights, but today one story in particular stands out. Riffing on the old complaint “They come here, they take our jobs”, Bush cites several articles citing a UCL study which point out that EU migrants actually made a net contribution to the British economy when tax contributions and welfare claims are compared, joking “Coming over here, adding £20bn to our GDP…”
Predictably, the newspapers immediately fall into their partisan groupings to spin the news. From the Morning Briefing summary:
“£120bn cost of Labour’s policy on immigration” is our splash. “UK gains £20bn from EU migrants” sayeth the Guardian. “EU migrants add £2obn to the economy in a decade” cheers the Indy. A study running by two leading migration experts at UCL has thrown further light on the costs and benefits of migration. Migrants from within the EU contribute £20 billion to the British economy, with immigrants from the original 15 EU countries contributing 64% more to the Exchequer than they took out in services and migrants from eastern Europe added 12% more than they took out.
It would be hard to concoct a sample of headlines and statistics that did more to obfuscate and confuse an important political issue, even if you tried. And that’s no criticism of Morning Briefing – it has faithfully published a representative sample of the UK print media’s coverage of an important political issue.
To begin, the triumphal claim that migrants made a net contribution to the UK economy is entirely meaningless. It might perhaps be considered good news if the national output was sliced into 63 million pieces and divided equally among the population (as some at the Guardian and Independent would doubtless love). But of course income and wealth are not shared equally in Britain, nor should they be. Therefore, it should not be surprising that this £20 billion net benefit to the economy is also not shared equally.
The rhetorical sleight of hand, emphasising the fact that migrants from the original 15 EU countries contributed 64% more in tax than they took in welfare, is also meaningless. French bankers who have settled in London to escape the socialist destruction of their country by President Hollande are not the type of immigrants who raise the ire of the typical UKIP supporter or sympathiser. Of more concern to them are the unskilled migrants from the recent accession countries – or even those with qualifications who take unskilled British jobs because of high unemployment at home – who came to the UK in large numbers and with no transitional controls.
Apologists for unlimited immigration can’t seem to wrap this idea round their heads. Immigration contributes to the fabric of our culture, they say. And they’re absolutely right. Immigrants tend to be hard-working and educated, for those are the type of people most likely to uproot from home and strike out on their own. Yes, that’s true as well, as is convincingly proved for the majority by the UCL study. And now they tell us that since immigration contributes a net benefit to the treasury (when viewed through the narrow but deceptive prism of tax receipts minus welfare payments), those who disagree, such as UKIP, are somehow automatically discredited. All of these positive statements can be true, and yet leave a plurality of British citizens still disadvantaged by the current and historic immigration policy.
Left unaddressed by the left-leaning newspapers which trumpeted the figures is the fact that the £20bn boon to our national finances means absolutely nothing to the unskilled British worker who suddenly finds himself competed out of every low-paying job in town by recent immigrants. It’s wonderful that George Osborne has more money to fritter away on government schemes and pet projects, but that is little consolation to the unskilled worker who finds him or herself eking out an existence on JSA.
As this blog noted back in June:
But for every British person who sees only opportunity in the EU’s free movement of people, there is another working for the minimum wage who will never be offered a secondment to the Brussels office by their company, and who must console themselves with the second-order benefits of free movement – such as “delighting in the capital’s kaleidoscopic culture” or being served their “early morning coffee” by someone from Spain.
None of this means that Britain should become a protectionist country, raising barriers and tariffs to protect our inefficient home industries and workforce. It just means that politicians need to urgently implement policies that will equip our children and struggling adults with the skills that they need to succeed in a labour market that prizes education and specialised training above all else, and sees simple manual or service work as a mere commodity.
Last week, after news broke of UKIP’s commanding poll lead in the Rochester and Strood by-election, I warned:
The challenge for the main political parties, if they want to survive past the 2015 general election, is this: find a way to make EU membership work for the bottom half of British society, and then sell it to them. If the protectionism of immigration controls is undesirable or impossible, what will Labour or the Conservatives do to equip Britain’s children and struggling adults to compete and prosper in today’s global labour market? And how will they promote and nurture a healthy sense of national identity, Britishness, amid so much change?
UKIP are prospering not because the establishment has failed to solve these challenges, but because they haven’t even tried.
Propaganda pieces such as those in the Guardian and Independent only give succour to our sclerotic political establishment, encouraging them to persist with their current policies while doing nothing to lessen the impact of immigration on the unskilled beyond making soothing noises in their direction once in awhile. This approach has clearly worked well for the political class and others of similar socio-economic status, but the rise of UKIP suggests that their policy of wilful ignorance about the toll of immigration on an uncompetitive domestic labour force is now starting to backfire.
More than that, it’s time for the staff and readerships of these left-leaning papers to put up or shut up. If they truly are so much more enlightened and compassionate than those of us who choose instead to wallow in the amoral swamp of conservatism, maybe they will finally acknowledge that unlimited immigration from the EU is not a bed of roses for the unemployed and the working poor.