Time to look closer to home.
Immigration is at the heart of the Brexit debate. It’s a large reason why economic arguments have failed to sway voters. Despite warnings of the high economic costs of leaving the EU (warnings supported by a majority of economists), immigration has continued to have a powerful influence – and is perhaps the major reason why the opinion polls have become so close in recent weeks.
The immigration debate is quite polarised. On one side, the Remain campaign either ducks the issue or focuses on the benefits that immigration brings to the economy as a whole. On the other side, the Leave camp focuses on its costs and plays into fears (often in a cruel and cynical way) that migrants are putting pressure on public services that are already at breaking point. At least among Labour supporters intending to vote leave, immigration also appears to be a key issue.
The need for a more even-handed assessment of the costs and benefits of immigration is sorely needed. While immigration brings undoubted benefits, it also places pressures on particular communities. It also feeds a sense of fear and frustration especially among the working class about an economy that is not delivering. It comes to symbolise the lack of power and opportunity available to them.
It is all too easy to scapegoat migrants as the problem, but there are deeper-lying problems of economic and social policy at play that harm all citizens, wherever they are born.
In particular, five years of austerity policies under the present government’s leadership, with spending on public services at historic lows and a failure to invest in housing and infrastructure, is the main threat to prosperity for all. Yes, immigration creates tensions, but mostly when it occurs in a context where austerity is entrenched. It can be managed most effectively and to the advantage of everyone if austerity is rejected.
Beyond the Brexit debate, there is a wider need to rethink economic policy and the economy more generally in ways that address the genuine concerns of the working class. In this way, the cynicism and nationalism attached to the immigration question can be extinguished.
The case for immigration is clear. Migrants are net contributors to the public finances – they tend to pay into the system more than they take out. Migrants, for example, are likely to retire in their home countries rather than in the UK.
By adding to spending levels, migrants also create jobs. Migrants also bring vital skills (for example in nursing and building trades) and can plug important shortages in the labour market (such as in the caring sectors).
Lurid and cynical headlines denigrating migrants as benefit tourists conveniently ignore the economic as well as social benefits that migrants make in different parts of the nation.
The downsides to immigration comes through the pressure it can place on public services. Housing and schooling stand out in this respect. Where communities face particularly high levels of immigration, housing waiting lists may rise and school places may become fewer in number. These pressures can create tensions.
But here the problem is not immigration per se; it is the lack of adequate housing and schooling. Even without immigration, housing needs would be unmet in some areas, particularly in London.
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