How to address concerns about immigration
Hazel Blears is reported by the Telegraph today saying that:
White working class people living on estates sometimes just don’t feel anyone is listening or speaking up for them. Whilst they might not be experiencing the direct impact of migration, their fear of it is acute.
I have to say that this is not what union members are telling us, although of course people in jobs are less likely to feel scared about the impact of migration than those who aren’t. But given what passes for the general political level of debate on immigration, it wouldn’t be that surprising if she was right – and the article does indicate that most people reporting these fears had little experience of actual migrants. A sensible response would include treating migrants and the people already here equally, rather than dividing them up.
The Government has responded contradictorily to rising voter concerns about migration. On the one hand they tell people that migration is in their own best interests (just like they do on globalisation, free trade, labour market flexibility etc), and on the other, they have the screaming dabs about it and claim to be shutting the borders and kicking illegal immigrants out. Home Office officials, meanwhile, stress the need for a nuanced debate (clearly their political masters think “nuanced” is a synonym for “facing both ways at once”).
Migration is about change, and, as indicated above, New Labour’s general response to change (the clue is in the name) is to approve of it. When people don’t go along with that, they are lectured. If that doesn’t work, their baser responses to change are pandered to. A more grown up response would be to address the reasons why some people are worried about some changes (such as immigration) and embrace others (like mobile phones and the web) – predominantly, it’s about whether they feel they are losing out as a result. That’s what people don’t like about globalisation, for instance – not many consumers object to a broader range of food in the supermarket or a broader range of holiday destinations (although there are good reasons to be concerned about both). But they do worry about losing their job to somewhere in China or India, or seeing their pay levels reduced.
Of course there are other ways to do this – like making change more familiar, which is important in terms of migration where fears are greatest among those with least practical experience of migrants. That is one reason why we think trade union members seem less concerned about the latest surge in migration that they did about previous surges – they have experience of working with migrants, and know that they pose no real threat to their way of life, and if they pose a threat to wage levels, it’s because of what employers are doing, not the migrants.
The solution, when someone is facing change that they are concerned could make them worse off, is to address the ‘worse off’ bit, not the ‘change element’ – not least because change is difficult to control, especially in terms of migration. But there is lots we can do to make sure that people in the UK don’t feel threatened by migration. Here’s a few ideas:
- provide unemployed or low skilled people with lots more training so that they are better placed to compete for better paid, more enjoyable, less precarious jobs;
- make jobs better paid, more enjoyable and less precarious in the first place;
- ensure that migrant workers and indigenous workers are treated equally and fairly – with equal rights, equal pay and equal opportunities (this has to include preventing indirect exploitation as well as the direct sort – if migrants are more likely to be agency workers, then giving all agency workers equal rights with permanent staff prevents both forms of discrimination);
- help both migrant workers and indigenous workers to take advantage of what society has to offer by ensuring they have the life skills and the resources to benefit – language training is important for migrants, and basic skills are important for those who were left behind by their education; and
- let everyone participate in communal activities (joining unions, belonging to local associations and clubs, belonging to multicultural faith groups and so on) – these are great mixers, and have stood the test of previous migrations.
These steps would be more sensible than having hissy fits about either people’s reaction to migration, or the fact that migration is happening at all.