The topic dominating the 23 June EU referendum in the UK has been immigration, and it is threatening to deliver a victory for the Brexit campaign. What saddens and frustrates me is how the Brexit campaign have misled the British public over this issue in particular, and how the Conservative Remain campaign has been so lacklustre such that Britain is drifting towards Brexit.
Brexit are campaigning mainly on the basis of regaining control of Britain's borders and significantly reducing migration, and they are winning support on this issue in particular. However, they don't present the public with a credible case, once we start to look at the data. As I outlined in an earlier blog post, even if a Brexit Britain was able to reduce EU migration by a quarter and non-EU migration did not increase to fill the gap in labour supply, a very BIG IF, population growth rates would only go from 0.7% annually at present to 0.6%. There would no impact on that feeling of Britain being too full of people and unable to cope.
The current feeling among predominantly working class people, who are big supporters of Brexit, of Britain being full is actually due to the impacts of a combination of six years of austerity and steadily widening economic inequality under a neo-liberal economic policy that favours elites. Both of these issues are Made in London, not Brussels. However, the Conservative Remainers are ignoring them and delivering a weak campaign for Remain. Why?
Even as Britain's population grows and the labour force expands, the government is taking active steps to reduce investment in public infrastructure and services in the service of austerity, causing increasing competition for public resources among ordinary people. The OECD recently called for a reversal of this policy, but thus far the government has refused to veer from its flagship policy. Of course, everyone except the very rich living in Britain right now knows that there is less to go around per person, but that is the result of a deliberate policy by the current government to shrink the state and starve the country of public resources. Britain's population has grown more rapidly in the past and we coped with it at that time, why not today?
Added to this is the feeling that the cost of private resources is increasingly out of reach as the rich and professional classes (double professional income households especially) become more wealthy and the gap between them and ordinary people widens. House prices, for example, rise with affordability, pricing out those on lower incomes. Again, this is the outcome of a deliberate and planned policy Made in London to reduce taxes on the rich to encourage mobile capital to come to London. It's worked. There are lots more Russian and Chinese billionaires in London today, but these are not the immigrants that the Brexit campaigners complain about. Their naively hoped for 'trickle down economics' has not occurred as homes and a decent life are increasingly out of reach for ordinary people. This is being driven in part by structural changes in the distribution of wealth and income inequality, particularly in the Southeast of England and in London.
A crucial point once more not being made by the Remain camp is the following. The public finances are in deficit, which means that on average everyone in the UK is taking out more than they put in. But, EU migrants as a group are contributing more than they take out. Which means that British people are even more in the red than the headline figures might indicate. For example, EU migrants don't incur childhood costs as they migrate here as adults etc., they tend to depend less on welfare benefits than British people, and they tend to pay more into the system in income taxes and other contributions. So, simple arithmetic shows that British resident nationals and non-EU migrants are costing the state more than they contribute, and it is EU migrants that are keeping public finances from falling further into the red. These are the people that the Brexit camp would like to prevent coming to the UK.
Ultimately, a much more effective and just method of reducing immigration would be instead to increase investment in British people's skills to fill labour shortages in the NHS etc. and reduce reliance on people born and trained in developing countries. EU migrants are in a small minority in the NHS etc., where most migrants are from former colonies such as India, Pakistan, S Africa etc. These countries have huge public health problems of their own, and could do with not losing their investments in public health training to the UK. In addition, most EU migrants work in the private sector and have a higher rate of entrepreneurial activity than British people, meaning that many are wealth generators, and future employers of British workers.
If a Brexit government were to successfully cut EU migration, we would see UK public finances go deeper into deficit, and see government investment drop and the economy shrink. Any gains from not paying EU dues will be wiped out and then some. It is disingenuous at best, therefore, to claim that Brexit will improve public finances and we will have all this extra money to pay for the gap that withdrawal from EU funding would create. We would all be worse off, it appears, and any UK government controlled by libertarian Brexiteers would be even less inclined to welcome new migrants.
So why doesn't the Conservative Remain camp tell us this?
It's easy, really. The EU Referendum in Britain was a bad idea right from the start, especially for Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, as it turns out, who are leading the Conservative Party's Remain campaign. Cameron and Osborne can't campaign against Brexit using the argument that the main reasons for ordinary people feeling squeezed in their lives is not immigration, but austerity (lack of public investment), and widening inequality (unaffordable homes and summer holidays), since they would be admitting that the central plank of their own economic policy this past six years is the root cause of the deepest rift in British society and culture since at least the 1930s.
So, the big guns of the Remain camp have been spiked and we have a lacklustre campaign from their side, and a drift towards Brexit. Indeed, if Britain does Brexit, then it will be very much Cameron's and Osborne's responsibility because they made themselves hostage to their own economic and fiscal policy.
What we need instead is an honest debate about the impacts of austerity and inequality on British life and how to solve these. The party to lead this debate is, of course, Labour; but they've got their own problems. The result is that Britain doesn't have effective leadership on the Remain side in this referendum, and that may deliver a disastrous result for our country over the long term.