News and Comment

Fighting over scraps: immigration and the economy

Friday 10 October 2014


There’s an interesting blog post from Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute about the reasons why people oppose immigration. It’s based on a poll by Ipsos Mori which asked opponents of immigration to detail their reasons for wishing to reduce the number of people coming to Britain. Sam’s point is that the top 5 reasons – immigrants taking jobs and housing, acting as a general drain on resources, fear of overcrowding and the need to support British people first – are primarily economic, not social or cultural, factors.

Sam then argues that the key to undermining negative attitudes towards immigration is to put these arguments to bed – to persuade people that their economic fears are misfounded. This would move the UK towards the direction of more open borders  which would in turn make ‘the world a better place’.

The blog made me think about all the qualitative research I have done which has turned to the subject of immigration. This includes work with people of white and non-white working class backgrounds, old and young, from cities to rural areas across the UK. The research might not have been primarily about immigration, but it has come up as a subject on several occasions.

One piece of work was commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government for their Connecting Communities programme, which explored peoples’ perspectives on and definitions of their local areas, their networks, opportunities and local resources. One particular focus group involved a group of people from a tough, predominantly white, and economically and socially deprived estate on the outskirts of Liverpool.

The conversation about local resources turned quickly to a debate on national immigration policy. Like the Ipsos Mori poll, participants talked about immigrants being recruited into scarce job opportunities, taking priority on housing lists and generally adding to the pressure on local services. They talked about ways in which the small row of shops that serviced the estate were slowly being boarded up and how generally their worlds were becoming smaller and poorer – barely enough for them, never mind for new people moving into the area.

Yet when I asked whether anyone had direct experience of these issues – e.g. whether they knew of an immigrant that had taken a job or jumped a housing queue – their answer was striking: they had none. They were simply using the subject of immigration as a means by which to describe how tough their lives were and how their opportunities were on the slide, which led them to play out a fierce but theoretical fight with the spectre of immigrants over what was seemingly available.

The Ispos Mori poll (as far as I am aware) doesn’t probe the extent to which participants had direct economic experiences of their immigrant neighbours or whether participants were simply articulating their fears of immigration. Certainly however, the competition for scarce resources amongst those who have the least in our society is a huge driver in anti-immigrant sentiment and creates division between white and established second or third generation immigrant populations. The current campaign against the building of a new mosque in my hometown of Bolton could be considered as one example of this taking place.

This makes Sam’s recommendation of debunking the economic myth harder than it sounds. Telling those with the least in society that economic fears of immigration are misguided is all very well, but pretty meaningless if their economic outlook remains bleak. Indeed, even those with a bit more in the bank are unlikely to relinquish fears that our structures can cope with more people as we are being bombarded with stories of a creaking NHS, further council cuts and the stark news that most people in poverty are in working families.

Perhaps, therefore, the recommendation shouldn’t be about debunking economic myths around immigration as a theory, but to explore the reasons why there are so few available resources for those in need in the first place. Bringing together groups of poor, struggling white people alongside groups of poor, struggling immigrants over this shared cause might actually make the world a better place.