Being tough on mythical migration problems won’t help the poor of Eastleigh
Burned by the effect of the Eastleigh byelection surprise success for UKIP, recent weeks have seen the coalition government announcing more and more measures to deter people coming and working in the country, desperate to win back voters. Yesterday it was David Cameron’s turn to flex his muscles, making a speech in Ipswich, where he declared he would introduce rules to make it harder for migrants to claim benefits and – the phrase that pays – ‘crack down’ on illegal immigrants.
Cameron’s speech was shot full of holes on the grounds of factual accuracy almost as soon as it had been delivered. Many pointed out, fewer migrants claim benefits than British nationals and their eligibility for social housing is already limited in many cases. But there’s another reason why Cameron’s speech was the wrong response to the wrong issue.
Let’s listen to why people in Eastleigh said they voted for UKIP. Their stories reveal a central, but ignored concern they have about living in poverty.
Here is Sarah Holt, a 37 year old shop worker:
‘There’s going to be more and more foreigners coming in and taking everything from us… It can be tough making ends meet but I manage because I live alone.’
Peter Woodhouse, a 43 year old train driver, says he voted UKIP because:
‘We’re a small island… It’s not about race, it’s about space. We haven’t got the roads, we haven’t got the infrastructure.’
An honest listener to Sarah and Peter could have allayed their fears – as mentioned migrants claim less benefits than British residents and, rather than take higher paid jobs (‘from us’), a 2012 Oxford University study reveals that migrants are more likely to be working in the same low-paid, low-skill sectors as Sarah.
Peter is right that there is insufficient infrastructure but this is due to radical Government underspending, not increased population. Professor Stephen Nickell calculated in a 2009 study that even if there had been zero migrants entering the country there would have been a need for 270, 000 new homes to be built to keep up with demand.
However, last week the Government made clear it has no interest in tackling the real hardships that poverty and under-investment have caused people, not just in Eastleigh but across the country. In his Budget statement Osborne promised a continuation of the same austerity policies that have drained productivity, and thus demand and jobs, out of the economy and caused the wages of people like Sarah to plummet in real terms. Peter no doubt looked on in dismay as Osborne announced cuts to services will continue and there will be no significant capital commitment on infrastructure .
While speeches such as the one David Cameron gave yesterday may score easy political poll points by associating migration with the dramatic fall in people’s living standards, such posturing does nothing to help millions of workers struggling to get by or stop the 690,000 extra children TUC research suggests will slip below the poverty line by 2015.
What low paid workers in Britain need is to be assured that the Government is willing to invest in decently paid jobs and services, rather than deterring workers from other EU countries from exercising their legal right to work and contribute to our economy. Of course, this commitment requires the Government to turn away from austerity and crippling cuts. It seems David Cameron finds solving mythical problems easier.