Thursday, 4 April 2013

Cameron’s Anti-Immigrant Populism




The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has made new friends across the English Channel, with the far-right Front National praising his recent speech on the right of immigrants to have access to Britain’s social benefits and public services. This underlines the dangerous turn made by Cameron, as he resorts to anti-immigrant populism in an attempt to divert attention away from his failed economic policies and rebuild the support of his Conservative Party that is trailing in the opinion polls. 

The background to Cameron’s speech is an economy in free-fall that continues to suffer from the government’s policies of austerity. Productivity is around 10% below the level it was at the beginning of the crisis; investment remains depressed; living standards are falling; public debt has risen; the country’s international credit rating has been downgraded and its currency is depreciating  Despite this catalogue of failures, the government has just announced a new series of spending cuts and pay restraints that will further push the British economy into the doldrums. 

Cameron’s attempt to blame external enemies is not new. He has previously spoken about the supposed burden placed upon the British economy by immigration and blamed the European Union for the country’s economic woes. His recent statements take this a step further, as he combines anti-immigrant populism with euroscepticism, focussing his attention on immigrants from EU member states in Central Eastern Europe. 

As Britain remains a member of the EU then it cannot prevent citizens from other EU countries coming to live and work in Britain (although temporary restrictions are presently retained on those coming from Bulgaria and Romania). As an alternative the government is seeking to restrict their access to social benefits and public services. Cameron announced that unemployment benefits would be stopped for EU immigrants after six months if they failed to prove they were seeking employment (part of the criteria would include an individual’s ability to speak English); those seeking social housing will have to prove that they have a 5 year so-called ‘local residency link’; and the government will be looking at ways to recoup the costs from the home country governments of immigrants using Britain’s National Health Service. 

All this may well please the right-wing in his party and the media that backs it; and Cameron will hope that it will dampen support for its rival the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKiP) that has recently gained support in the opinion polls. However, his arguments have no factual basis.

For example, of the 2 million net migrants in Britain, from the 8 CEE countries that have been in the EU since 2004, just 13,000 have ever claimed unemployment benefits. Furthermore, according to the government’s own calculations, just £10-20m could be regained from its proposals on the health service, from a total annual health budget of more than £100bn. Also, although Cameron stated that the number of immigrants in social housing has risen by 40% over the past 4-5 years, this is an increase from just 6.5% to 9% of the total number in such dwellings. In short, his proposals will have no impact upon the living standards of the British population

An alternative perspective, that is rarely raised by politicians or the media, is the positive impact that immigration has had on the British economy. Studies have shown that immigrants from CEE are on average younger and better educated than native British workers (despite being concentrated in the least skilled professions); they have a higher rate of activity in the labour market and they are 60% less likely to receive social benefits or use social housing than the rest of the population. This has meant that people from CEE pay on average 37% more in taxes than they receive in public goods and services – surely something that a government obsessed with deficit reduction should be encouraging! Also as all European countries struggle with the challenges of an ageing population, so this influx of young, educated and active people will serve to improve Britain’s demographic structure. 
 
The country’s mounting social and economic problems can only be solved by a comprehensive programme of investment. This is particularly needed in housing, where there is a chronic lack of social housing due to successive governments (both Labour and Tory) failing to build sufficient new homes over the past couple of decades. The Tory government continues to draw money out of the economy, which is increasing the hardships for millions of people in Britain. As this intensifies then we may expect that the government’s anti-immigrant populism will increase and that this will draw more praise from those those such as the Front National.  

 NB: For a very interesting analysis of the link between economic growth and immigration, see this article here

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