The promises of brexiteers are built on sand
Politics is far away for a kid. Growing up in the Black Country town of Willenhall (just north of Birmingham) in the mid 1990s, bickering politicians in Westminster were a million miles away. I played in mud (to the annoyance of my mom) and kicked footballs at school windows (to the annoyance of my teacher). When my mom used to take me and my sister to the market stalls of Willenhall town they bustled with life. The smell of fresh produce and pungent fish filled the air. One of the first toys I got came off the bench of a Willenhall market vendor. You could find everything from clothes to books to old videos and cassettes. Not anymore. Going back to the town as a fresh faced graduate, it still feels a million miles away from Westminster. The bustle of the 90s does too. Proud Victorian buildings are covered in grime. Weeds poke out the brickwork. Rusted iron boards up windows on empty buildings. The buzz of market day has been replaced with the quiet tuts of the few traders left behind. It’s history making world beating locks confined to a museum.
The story of Willenhall, like much of the Black Country, isn’t unique. In Walsall, the town next door, the once proud leather makers are gone. Another museum relic. Same with the bikes of Wolverhampton, and the smoking chimneys of Dudley -now with a graveyard for a high street. Guardian writer John Harris’ brilliant and heart wrenching series “Anywhere but Westminster” tells the story of Labour heartland Stoke-on-Trent, where the hum of potteries has hushed, and sizzle of steel works long died. The high street is a line of boarded up shops. A phrase that keeps cropping up is “nothing ever changes”.
Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have tapped into this resentment, and offered a simple solution: immigrants. They steal jobs. They hurt wages. They pinch school places and crowd GP waiting rooms. They scrounge off the benefits paid for by the hard working taxpayer. The only way to stop them is by giving the EU the boot. Tabloids tell tales of migrants getting everything on a gold plate, while hard workers struggle and pensioners are attacked. One man working Walsall market tells stories of foreigners snapping up jobs and undercutting locals while politicians ignore them; dreaming of a “Great” Britain (he harks back to colonial times). Question Time in the town was dominated by Brexit questions. Others talk of immigrants filling up council houses. One woman on John Harris’ film screams she wants her country back. A staggering 80% of people polled by the Black Country’s local paper, The Express and Star, want out
The worries of these communities can’t be dismissed as just “racist”. They’re not. Only a quarter of young people distrust muslims. 71% said they’d be comfortable with their child marrying someone of a different race, and 74% were comfortable with someone of a different race getting the top job as PM. At their heart, they’re economic ones. Ipsos-Mori polled people and said as much: the top 5 concerns about immigration are economic. This isn’t to paint Britain as some cultural utopia; just that people always care more about the pinch on their wallets than the Polish fruit picker.
A pity Farage and Johnson are snake oil peddlers, then. Only 2.3% of EU citizens claim out of work benefits (based on DWP claims). Only 3.3% of families claiming out of work child tax credits are from the EU. Migrants don’t come here for generous benefits – the one benefit migrants are more likely to claim are in work tax credits. In fact, most migrants pay far more into the system than they take out. Since 2001, EU migrants have made some £20 billion in contributions, according to UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM). HMRC data for 2013/14 shows migrants paid in £3.1 billion in income tax and NI contributions, and took out £0.56 billion from the system. EU migrants are generally better educated than natives (59% have a university degree vs 34% of UK natives). They have higher employment rates than UK citizens too. Everyone from UCL’s CReAM, the OECD, the Migrant Advisory Council to a review article for the government all say the same thing: migrants don’t steal jobs.
Migrants don’t depress wages either. A study from the IPPR, a thinktank, note migration hits wages by about 0.3% for every 1% increase in migrant share of workers. That’s about 2p for every hour on the minimum wage (£7.20 for adults in 2016). If you earn ~£10,000 a year, it’s 8p a day. Studies that say the lowest 5% of earners lose 0.6% for every 1% increase changes this amount to 4p for every hour on the minimum wage. Even a Bank of England paper said that it’d take a 10% hike in immigrants in work to take 14p out of every hour you work. It’s too small to care about. And many studies show the opposite. The London School of Economics , CReAM, and the Migration Advisory Council all say migrants have no impact on wages, or have boosted them.
Putting stresses on the NHS? No. According to Full Fact, one in ten EU migrants are doctors. One in 25 are nurses. NHS waiting times are lower in areas with more migrants, according to Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. Migrants are likely to be younger and fitter than Brits are, and don’t take as much out the NHS. Anecdotes about the need for translators in GP offices may well be true, but the data doesn’t bear that out. Migrants can’t be blamed for snatching up school places. Migrants don’t hurt public services
Europe doesn’t make 60% of our laws, either. The number is based on 6 year old German research A parliamentary paper puts the number between 10 and 50%, but most aren’t laws in any meaningful sense; but regulatory measures . The UK sides with the majority in 87% of votes in the EU anyway, according to the London School of Economics. Hardly an evil organisation imposing its will on plucky Britannia.
Promises an Australian style immigration system will fix things are hardly good ones. Australia still has high migration rates. Based on population (around 23 million), they’re comparable to the UK’s. Net non-EU migration (read: the number we can control) has always been higher than EU migration. In December of 2015, net non-EU migration was 188,000, most of it was students. The people government can actually stop coming in (students, families and high skilled migration); aren’t the ones we want to stop. Worse, plans to bring immigration into the 10,000s are A) nearly impossible even if EU migration hits zero, and B) the ones that hit public finances and people’s wallets hardest. No wonder Mr. Farage dumped his plans for a migration cap.
Points based systems don’t stop low wage workers being undercut, either. Working holiday visas for young international students in Oz are often investigated for migrant worker exploitation.
Evidence from Australia says moving to a freer migration system (away from a points based one) stopped skilled people being unemployed or underemployed. Market planned immigration systems work better than government ones. It wasn’t the EU and immigration that caused the decline of my hometown, and countless like it. EU money has poured into places like Birmingham, which has seen something of a renaissance. EU money cleaned up town hall, funded jobs for 16,000 Brummies, and pumped money into everything from research, community centres and dance festivals.
The naked truth, though, is all the numbers in the world won’t reassure people. John Harris noted on his travels that people are scared about losing their jobs, anxious about living pay cheque to pay cheque, and angry at a political bubble that doesn’t care and doesn’t listen.
Perhaps the biggest crime of Boris, Gove and Farage is pretending to.