1 December 2014

Informative but directionless Compass debate on immigration

I go to far fewer political meetings than I would like, which I think says more about the lack of political discussion in this country at the moment than it does about me, so I was pleased to be able to go to a Compass event on EU Immigration fears: Who is to blame?

The timing, 5pm, was a little awkward because they had to meet the needs of the various presenters but the location was close to Victoria station and I was able to work in London that day and to get away at 4:30pm to make it on time.

The event was supported by Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German think-tank. This meant that there was a decent menu, mince pies to go with the coffees on arrival and some refreshments afterwards.

I sat at a table at the back. I like to sit at the back of meetings as that gives me a view of the other people there so it is easier to judge the meeting overall and also to decide when to join in.

I was pleasantly surprised to be joined there by Alf Dubbs (now Baron Dubbs) who I had campaigned for when between jobs in 1992 and who I had met only the year before at the BCSA Annual Dinner. We had a short conversation and I was pleased that he remembered me.

The discussion on immigration was introduced by Neal Lawson then we had short talks from Michael Orton Senior Research Fellow Institute for Employment Research at University of Warwick, Martin Seeleib-Kaiser Barnett Professor of Comparative Social Policy and Politics Oxford University and (arriving a little late because of divisions in the House) Lisa Nandy MP Shadow Minister for Civil Society and Compass regular.

The usual disclaimer; these are my notes taken from the speakers, the other people at the meeting, my notes at the time and my subsequent thoughts.

We can see immigration through the lens of insecurity; insecurity through zero hours contracts, high rents, etc. leads to fear, and this leads to scapegoating.

About half the population are in the anxious middle, not opposed to immigration but wary of it.

Pro-immigration arguments only reach the liberal left (me!) who are already convinced and it scares the anxious middle. By arguing for immigration we raise the subject and make things worse.

We need a simple and different argument to change the game (the same is true for the economy). We have not been able to do this so far (why is this?, a serious philosophical question that may suggest a significant problem with the way that politics is framed in favour of the right-wing).

The (suggested) answer at the meeting was to oppose neoliberalism directly, i.e. attack the root cause of the problem and not the symptoms. I am happy with that but the problem remains that the riposte needs to be simple, understandable and convincing. The facts and figures are on our side but not the narrative.

One simple message might be We Are All Immigrants, It Is Just A Question Of How Many Generations You Go Back. But that in itself is insufficient, that fact that immigration was good for us in the past is no guarantee that it will be in the future. Blame The Bankers Not The Bulgarians was also suggested but this assumes that there is something wrong that needs to blamed on somebody/something rather than celebrating immigration in its own right.

The UK is not good at providing the data required to support pro-immigration arguments and is at odds with the EU on the conclusions it draws. EU funding is available to help communities most hit by immigration but the UK is not using this, on some bizarre principle.

Enforcing regulations, like minimum wage, would help locals and make jobs more open to other locals. The benefit changes proposed by the Tories would require a treaty change, and that would need an unanimous vote, which it would not get.

Not only is the UK's view on immigration shared across Europe but other countries have recently made moves to support immigration. The Swiss said yes to immigration on economic grounds and the USA recently admitted 5m illegal immigrants.

Immigration has some general flows, eg. south to North in EU. Climate change will exacerbate this. The free flow of capital should be supported by free flow of people.

The debate on immigration is too focussed on the economy, i.e. arguments over whether we have lost or gained financially through recent immigrations, when there is far more to consider, especially culture. This is a battle about values and we cannot afford to lose it.

The language used is a problem, e.g. immigration is tightly coupled with migration and emigration but these aspects are rarely spoken about. "Immigration" is a bogey problem that each person can interpret their own way, e.g. Lithuanians taking low-paid jobs here, some ethnic groups keeping to their own communities rather than integrating to the wider society or Russian oligarchs pushing up London house prices.

While some interesting facts and ideas were shared, I felt that the scope of the discussion was far too wide to reach any meaningful conclusions, particularly as we learnt during the evening that talks like this just preach to the converted.

What was a lot more successful was the informal discussions over drinks and nibbles after the main session. Lisa could not stay, they were voting in the House, but I managed to grab quite a few words with both Michael and Martin and several other people there. That was my favourite part of the meeting and a good end to the evening.

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