Let's Discuss Austerity and Inequality, not Immigration: Or Why Does the Conservative Remain Campaign not Tell the British People What We Need to Know?

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.

Should Britain Leave the EU to Regain Democratic Control of Our Lives?

Some people in Britain argue that the EU is undemocratic, or that it undermines democracy at the national level, and they use this as reason to want to leave the EU. Here's my take on this question.

The European Parliament has 733 members elected directly by the citizens of the member states. It legislates all EU laws. Importantly, the results of European elections, which take place every five years, are decided by proportional representation. The EU Commission is the executive branch of the EU. Commissioners are all appointed by the heads of governments of the member states. The President of the European Commission is elected by the European Parliament after negotiations between the elected heads of government of the member states. There are three other 'Presidents', who head up the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council of Europe, but the President of the Commission is the titular head and most powerful EU official. He answers to the heads of government of the EU member states. No EU representative has their job as a result of birthright.

The UK Parliament in Westminster is divided into two chambers. The House of Commons has 650 members elected directly by British citizens. Results are decided by a First Past the Post system, which means it is possible for the party with the most number of votes to win fewer seats than the eventual winning party. It also means that smaller parties may win large numbers of votes but gain few seats. The Prime Minister is the head of government and is appointed by the Queen, and is nearly always the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. There is no direct election for the post of Prime Minister. The second chamber is the House of Lords. It shares the task of making and shaping laws as well as challenging the House of Commons. None of the members of the House of Lords are directly elected by the citizens of the UK. All are either hereditary peerages, or are appointees by the Queen on the recommendation of Prime Ministers past and present. The Queen, of course, is a hereditary monarch and is the Head of State of the UK. She was not elected by anyone.

An important issue is the role of unelected officials. The EU employs about 55,000 unelected officials to administer a population of 508 million people in 28 countries, and the UK government employs approximately 393,000 unelected officials - the Civil Service - to administer a population of 64 million in 1 country (or four countries if you take an alternative view). The EU's unelected officials are selected in a similar way that the UK Civil Service selects its employees; through open and fair competition administered by EPSO, the European Personnel Selection Office. These officials are answerable to the elected members of the European Parliament or the European Commissioners. Similarly, members of the Civil Service in the UK are answerable to Parliament and the government of the day.

So, what does all this mean? Well, my understanding is that the EU is not really less democratic than the UK, and there is validity in arguing that it might be more democratic. For example, the issue of heredity and birthright is not an issue in the EU. The EU administration is, nevertheless, more geographically distant from citizens than the government in Westminster, but I think that it fulfils a vital role in tacking difficulties that national governments would have trouble tackling as effectively. Pollution or climate change, for example, don't respect national borders and need effective international cooperation which the EU can provide.

Moreover, and this is the important issue for me, the great majority of British people consent to Civil Servants - unelected officials - making decisions about our lives every day of the week. I don't see much difference if EU officials are doing the same thing, about issues and problems that are important to us and are additional, or supplementary to what the British government and local authorities also provide on our behalf. In summary, therefore, I don't think remaining in the EU presents Britain and British people with a democratic deficit. If anything, I think it enhances our democracy and provides more in the way of political methods and opportunities for resolving our common concerns. But more on that another time.

Should Britain Leave the EU to Reduce Immigration?

Some people say that Britain is full, that our infrastructure and services can't cope with the extra numbers, and that this rate of growth in the population is unprecedented. They even say that we need to leave the EU to reduce the number of people entering the UK. I have a keen research interest in demography. So, I looked at some data and did some simple calculations. Here's an alternative view.

Between 1831 and 1901 the British population grew at a rate of 1.2 per cent annually, mostly as a consequence of high fertility and the 'epidemiological dividend' where improved survival rates drove mortality lower.

Between 1960 and 2015 UK population growth never rose above 0.8 per cent per year (1962 and 2007-11), was under 0.5 per cent for most of the period, was very slightly negative in 1975-77 and 1982, and is currently (2014/15) at around 0.7 per cent. The inward migration component of Britain's current population growth is about 53 per cent, meaning that 47 per cent of UK population growth is due to natural increase. In 2015 55 per cent of the migration component was due to immigration by EU citizens. So, in 2015 29 per cent of Britain's population growth was due to immigration by EU citizens, and 71 per cent of population growth was due to other causes.

Even if one agrees that immigration needs to be reduced and it could or should be reduced by leaving the EU, the data shows that a decrease of, say, a quarter in EU migration (a BIG decrease) would achieve only a small decrease in overall growth rates of around 0.1 percentage points - meaning that the population would continue to grow at a roughly similar rate. And that is assuming, of course, that non-EU migration would not increase to fill the resulting gap in labour demand.

The Victorians coped well with a higher rate of population increase, investing in infrastructure that survives to this day. Of course there were Malthusians among them, but they were largely ignored. Quality of life improved markedly through this period, which in itself pushed population growth rates higher by reducing mortality. Indeed, many people who complain of present-day population growth look back admiringly, even longingly, at that period as one of the most prosperous, productive and successful in British history.

Why can't we cope with a slower rate of increase than Victorian Britain? Well, first of all, I disagree that we can't cope. However, that feeling of not coping that some people claim to be experiencing is probably due more to governments past and present not investing in the necessary housing and infrastructure, not training enough younger people to fill labour demand (particularly in public services), and instead giving our resources away to the already rich.

Leaving the EU is not the solution. Investment is the solution.