Friday, July 01, 2016

The Immigration problem

I partially watched Question Time last night, partly because I turned over late, and partly because I turned off early.  It was a frustrating experience, because of the things that weren't said as much as the things that were.

The comedian on the panel, Russell Kane, talked about the attitude of his family towards the result and said that Labour had failed to take up the initiative on immigration and address the problems which the people in the country have with it.  He also gave us a window on the xenophobia, saying that his relatives were dancing around the room declaiming that the immigrants who were undercutting their jobs as plumbers and builders, were "going home".

In a nutshell, this is the problem facing all parties in the wake of the referendum vote.  The Leave campaign made a number of promises they couldn't have a hope of keeping (not least all the money for the EU going to the NHS) and that a vote for "Leave" was a vote for controls on immigration.

The problem all parties face is that it can't be, unless we abandon all hope of trading with EU countries and maintaining a relationship with the EU.  This, I believe, is at the heart of Labour's inability to deal with the immigration issue: any realist will tell you that if you want to do business in future with the EU under the single market, migration of labour will be a part of that.

I'm not saying that I think immigration controls would be a bad thing - I have been astonished at how little planning councils and government do for changes in population - but that they are impossible to impose in the way the Brexiteers promised if we continue to trade freely with the EU.

Now, I know that a lot of the people who voted for Brexit for the reason that they feel they are being unfairly affected by the incoming immigrants, will simply declare that we should give up the single market for that reason.  But then we have the overwhelming problem of how to handle the people who are living here under the freedom of labour within the EU - and all the British people abroad who are happily working elsewhere in the EU.  Untangling that isn't going to happen overnight or next week or next year... it's a complex and very costly exercise you're looking at, with ramifications which extend beyond our borders and beyond.

The rise of racist and xenophobic attacks is going to get worse if we don't do something about it, because the people who are threatened by immigration are not likely to be listening to reason arguments about the impossibility of doing what they were promised.  The problem is that their anger is likely to be directed at what they perceive to be the problem - the immigrants - and not towards the people who really deserve their ire.  The self-serving bunch of fools who made the promises in the first place.

Our country has been strengthened by immigration over the course of centuries - from the Romans to the waves of Jewish and Caribbean and Asian immigrants in the 20th century.  The addition of people in times of plenty was positive, adding colour and cuisine to the country.  A lot of the problems we have at the moment are entirely caused by austerity - the NHS underfunded, social housing sold off or under-replaced, unemployment high in areas where old industries have been killed off or died.  But it is easy to see why people who are directly affected by a drop in income because they are experiencing what they perceive as unfair competition from the immigrant community might place the blame on their neighbour and not on the government.

Solving the problem properly requires investment in the social fabric, to the NHS and the social services and social housing.  I think it also makes sense for there to be changes to the rules on free movement of labour, especially when there is a big disparity in living standards between a newly-joined state and the other places in the EU.  It stops states being able to plan for their populations if there can be mass migration from one place to another without any controls.  And moving because you have a job in another state is rather different from moving to another state because you can make more money there.  We have opted out of being able to influence a change, although it is questionable whether there is a will to make that change in the other countries of the EU.

The people who are doing manual or labouring jobs don't have any protection in the current climate.  They don't have job security, they don't have the safety net that once was offered to them, and they don't have the same level of housing benefit or social security to fall back on if they lose their job or come to the end of a contract.  If they are self employed things are even more precarious.  It isn't surprising that they are the ones who feel most threatened by an influx of people.  They are also more likely to be living in areas where there is cheap housing, which attracts people in similar trades.

In the end, people thought they were voting for a couple of things.  Extra investment for the NHS.  Controls on immigration.  The remain camp weren't able to offer anything to counter those promises except more of the same.  It's only surprising to me that the vote wasn't even more decisive.  And our problem now is that no-one can deliver on the promises made.  And that's going to make people angry.

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