Focus: Migration and Election 2015

Focus: Migration and Election 2015

Suzanne Hall (London School of Economics and Political Science)

This special issue of Discover Society, edited by Suzi Hall, focuses on immigration in the UK within broader realities of increased global migration. The issue takes as a key reference point the implications of the new UK Immigration Act 2014, and the current climate of punitive immigration legislation that the act has ushered in. Distinctive changes to how migration is regulated have occurred, alongside an acrimonious public debate on immigration, as the UK heads towards a national election in 2015. The special issue includes perspectives from academics, activists and practitioners, and explores how immigration processes reshape the composition of societal institutions, alter the possibilities of professional practice, and change the prospects of both life and death as a migrant. Specifically, the articles address some of the more pernicious aspects of new forms of governing immigration including: the mercantile nature of national border controls; the construction of ‘illegality’ through varied ‘sans papiers’ mechanisms; and the substantive reduction of migrants’ rights. Emerging forms of migrant resistance are also explored within locally constituted forums as well as larger notions of universal rights. Finally, we take a critical perspective on the current shape of the immigration debate as we head towards the general election, and suggest that policy attempts at restricting immigration may well have adverse effects 

Immigration and Inequality
If there is one resounding issue that should provide the fulcrum for the UK 2015 General Election, it is inequality. However, the current build up to this decisive political event on the 8th of May 2015 is focused on migration. The disaffection born out of a significant increase in economic polarisation since the financial crisis of 2008, has turned to confront not the roots of inequity, but the image of the outsider. A “deep sense of alienation” is now commonly referred to in capturing a sentiment felt by the British electorate in the lead up to the National Elections. Deep societal disaffection is an understandable – even predictable – consequence of the brutal impact of a global financial crisis, and its disproportionate impacts of rising economic inequality that is now at the core of the limited access to secure forms of work and social assistance across Europe and the UK. Indeed, global resistance to the expansion of societal polarisation has grown almost fourfold since 2008, (1) as the startling injustice of inequality registers in people’s lives.

But how is it that the disillusionment of portions of the UK electorate, underpinned by real fears of job losses, welfare cuts, and the dismantling of social housing, has come to focus on a fear of immigrants invading national borders? Here, it is necessary to contextualise the extent of the political vacuum that accompanies the profound scale of a growing economic divide in the UK, by providing a simple and perverse illustration of conservative political action. The Millennium Cohort Study of 2014 states that, ‘More than half of the children born in the UK at the turn of the millennium have experienced poverty at some point during their first 11 years […] while 17 per cent have been persistently poor and 12 per cent have experienced recurrent poverty’. At same time as the release of this staggering evidence, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced in the Autumn Statement of 2014 that children would be exempt from tax on economy airline flights. The irony of these two facts placed side by side, is not simply that we are in the midst of a grave era of austerity fueled by financialisation; it is also the incongruity in governance terms, of who and what is valued. A strident politics of privilege that is represented by, and favours, what is now commonly referred to as ‘the 1%’, (2) or the extraordinarily rich, is exemplified by the ludicrous tax gains to promote air travel for a minority of children in the UK, while a significant number of disadvantaged children remain affected by enduring poverty and steep increases in welfare cuts.

In the absence of a political ideology, or an infrastructure to redress the societal spirit level, what enters into the political foreground is the politics of the right and an election to be fought on the basis of fear and not prospects. In such a political vacuum, where signs of redress and evidence of a basic rebalance is not visible to an electorate, what is it that provides the fulcrum for electioneering?  ‘Immigrants are a useful diversion from the actual causes of scarcity’, states Danny Dorling.(3) Unaddressed societal alienation transforms into a volatile disposition, and a new, cynical political landscape becomes possible, orchestrated and occupied by a politics of fear. A politics of fear can only thrive if it is to identify a tangible and apparently powerless enemy.

Neither the failure of the market nor the failure of governance historically provide a suitable enemy to procure fear, for not only are these two monoliths too abstract to grasp, but they would require an all-together different path of action by way of recognition of responsibility and processes of redress. Rather, the construction of the enemy must serve two political purposes: an explanation of the unjust present in presenting a scapegoat for unresolved economic and political crises; and an articulation of a dystopic future, to be fought against at all costs. In the process of galvanising the public around a common cause, a vacuous and expedient politics pursues the path of the construction of a public enemy. In this anti-politics the foe must inevitably be cast as the outsider or alien, while the ‘common working man’, exemplified by the ‘working family’, provides the quintessential symbol of the insider.

On the unstable terrain of diminishing public resources, high inflation and growing income disparities, the political high ground is most easily secured by pitching for an insiders-against-outsiders politics. Anti-politics serves to effectively convert alienation into fear. And in the context of enormous societal disparity, it is not the fear of the causes of inequality, but the fear of immigration and the immigrant that is mobilised to occupy the central threat to national stability.

Landscapes of fear
How are we to understand the mappings of the UK Independence Party support base across the UK? While Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP since 2006, has himself failed to win any of the five British Parliamentary elections in which he stood, he was unusually successful in winning a seat as Member of the European Parliament in the 1999 European Parliamentary election, and was re-elected in 2004, 2009, and 2014. In the May 2013 local elections, a dramatic increase in UKIP support was registered, gaining 139 new seats, and securing overall 147 seats or 22 per cent of the vote share.  In addition, this was the first UK election in which none of the three main parties had secured 30 percent or more of the votes. The unprecedented fracturing of established voting patterns signals the disillusionment of the public in the prevailing British political structure. In 1983 the combined votes for the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties would have totalled 95 per cent. In 2014 polling data puts the figure at 70 per cent (4). But the expansion of multiparty politics also indicates shifts to a growing right-wing support base. The UKIP by-election seats recently won in Clacton and Rochester are hardly in areas in which ethnic diversity and large-scale migration prevail: 4.3 per cent of residents in Clacton were born outside of the UK, and in Rochester the figure is 9.3 per cent. So if individuals voting against immigration are less likely to be living with high levels of migration, what is it that drives a pro UKIP/ anti-immigration vote?

Eric Kauffman and Gareth Harris highlight three factors: the prevalence of a White British ethnic and national identity in an area; a ‘”halo effect” whereby fears of change are most amplified in white areas proximal to diversity’; and low social capital signified by both patterns of nonvoting and lack of trust in neighbours and government. Kauffman and Harris qualify that, ‘With ethnic diversity, those who rarely have contact with minorities and immigrants but are close enough to diverse places such as London to fear impending change are more opposed to immigration and more likely to support the populist right’. Their argument in part explains the purple marks on the UKIP support map: Rochester and Strood fits this description, as does the purple prominence over the Thames and Medway Estuary area. Further, Kauffman and Harris suggest that, ‘pattern of low party loyalty coupled with rising conservatism generated the seedbed for UKIP’s success’.

Matthew Goodwin, however, suggests that the ‘more middle-class, slightly younger and more affluent’ voter in Rochester and Strood fits less well with the category of the “left behind” UKIP voter.  Ford and Goodwin in their book, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, describe the “left-behind” voters who are most attracted to UKIP as white, working-class, older voters with no or minimal qualifications who are in precarious financial positions. In their ranking of UKIP pre-disposed seats, they ranked Clacton as first, with Rochester and Strood as 271st. They suggest that the support base widens to include those who elected not to vote in 2010, those who have shifted from the Conservatives, as well as those who previously voted Labour prior to 2010.

While a sentiment to lessen the ties with Europe may well be a significant undercurrent across the UKIP support base, Ford and Goodwin emphasise the significant effect of estrangement produced by the financial crisis:  ‘UKIP has clearly settled on a strategy of targeting its core voters, who we show in our book are financially struggling, disadvantaged, low skilled and low educated, and intensely concerned about the economic and social effects of immigration. These “left-behind” Britons were the first to be hit by Britain’s embrace of the global market, and then hit the hardest by the crisis and austerity. It is these blue-collar voters who lie at the heart of UKIP’s rebellion; struggling financially, feeling cut out of our political conversation and threatened by the exact type of immigration UKIP billboards are now magnifying – low-skilled migration from inside the EU’.

One unproductive consequence of the mobilisation of immigration as a centre stage issue for the national election in a time of profound economic inequality, is the perception, or indeed (mis)use, of a divide into ‘pro-immigration elites’ whose lives and prospects are not disadvantageously affected by migration, versus ‘anti-immigration racists’. These stereotypical portrayals take us nowhere; the reality is that the mobility of people, objects and ideas will be increasingly integral to twenty-first century life, and we therefore need to engage far more with what competencies are required for living with greater migration and more diversity. Deploying punitive forms of immigration prohibition, as is evident in the 2014 Immigrant Act, in no way engages with the new forms of institutional and societal competencies required to live with migration as a process of change, the ways global economies operate, and the ways that cultures across the planet can now virtually and physically intersect.

The tragedy of the map of the UKIP support base is not so much the perversity of people voting against immigration who are least likely to live in areas where migration is highest. The tragedy is that these voters have been disproportionally hit by the inequity of the crisis, and the inequity of the austerity measures: poorer households have been worst affected by the coalitions’ changes to taxes and benefits. Their competencies for dealing with change have been significantly undermined, a factor that will help secure a voting base for those profiting from fear, and not economic redress.

Some economic truths
One way to navigate through the distorted claims around the ‘problem’ of migration is by exploring some of economic evidence of how EU migration affects the UK. There are currently approximately 2.7 million EU migrants in Britain, totalling 4.3 per cent of the UK population. Of these, 2.5 per cent are working-age benefit claimants. Although 15 per cent of EU nationals in Britain claim some form of benefit; ‘overall they receive less than other people in the country’.(5) In David Cameron’s ‘stay in the EU’ immigration speech in November 2014, he stated: ‘We should be clear. It is not wrong to express concern about the scale of people coming into the country. People have understandably become frustrated. It boils down to one word: control. People want Government to have control over the numbers of people coming here and the circumstances in which they come, both from around the world and from within the European Union. They want control over who has the right to receive benefits and what is expected of them in return.’

Cameron’s proposed controls are: to introduce a four-year period before immigrants can receive in-work benefits; to discontinue child benefit payments to EU nationals in Britain whose children live outside Britain; and for an EU to migrant who has not found work after six months to leave Britain. However, Nardelli clarifies the largely symbolic nature of these savings, indicating that they would have minor impact on the overall UK tax credit bill.(5)

Increasing public misconceptions about whether migrants contribute their “fair share” to tax and welfare systems directly impacts on individual concerns about immigration policies.  In the absence of substantive research and evidence into the fiscal impact of immigrants on national economies, Dustmann and Frattini have explicitly analysed immigrant contribution to the UK over the period from 1995 to 2011. They clarify, ‘For immigrants that arrived since 2000, contributions have been positive throughout, and particularly so for immigrants from EEA [European Economic Area] countries. Notable is the strong positive contribution made by immigrants from countries that joined the EU in 2004.’ Their research has three central findings for the 1995 to 2011 period:
1. Immigrants residing in the UK were less likely than natives to receive state benefits, tax credits or access to social housing.
2. Immigrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) contributed ten per cent more fiscal benefit than natives.
3. European migrants who entered the UK labour market with qualifications that were paid for in their countries of origin, brought with them the equivalent of £14 billion of human capital.

Dustmann and Frattini’s research concludes that, ‘In particular, immigrants who arrived since 2000, especially those from EEA countries, have – through their positive net fiscal contributions – helped to reduce the fiscal burden for native workers.’

Parting thoughts
Migration is a significant change process, but it is also entirely integral to the future economic and cultural life of the UK. What the articles in this special issue do, is to highlight the divergent futures offered by the politics of fear that thrives in a highly unequal milieu, versus a politics of participation, in which economic justice is paramount. By way of food for thought, a few highlights from the articles are listed.

I started this article by asking why immigration, rather than inequality, is the major fulcrum for the national elections in May 2015. While Dorling and others suggest that immigration is a useful divergence from confronting the sources of inequality, a pervading disillusionment amongst voters, and particularly poorer voters, is reshaping the composition of multiparty politics in the UK. Detailed, evidence-based research points to two alarming contradictions in the governance of both inequality and immigration.

  1. CASE reports on Social Policy in a Cold Climate’ show that austerity cuts have disproportionally affected low-income families the most. Because these cuts have been offset with tax deductions for better off households, there has been no impact on the substantial UK budget deficit.
  2. While politicians across the political spectrum call for more immigration controls, specifically with respect to EU immigrants, Dustmann and Frattini’s ground-breaking research indicates that since 1995, but particularly from 2000, migrants in general but particularly those from the EEA, have contributed more to the tax and welfare system than they have taken out.

Students seeking tertiary education form a significant proportion of the current UK immigration figures. As Jo Attwoolls’ article shows, while the UK is currently the second most popular destination for international students after the US, a stringent immigration regime has, for the first time in sixteen years, translated into a fall in the non-EU enrolments in 2012/13. Attwooll indicates that international students contribute £7 billion in fees and off-campus expenditure per annum to the UK economy, and support 137 000 full-time equivalent jobs. The current Immigration Act threatens this contribution.

In contrast, Ruben Andersson’s article shows the inordinate amount of public funds invested into border management, not always to intended effect: in the US 100bn USD has been invested in border and migration control since 9/11, while the EU has committed 3.8bn EUR to border management through the International Security Fund.  Zrinka Bralo’s article brings the privatisation of border management home to the UK, and indicates that in 2014, £224million of tax payers’ money was spent on a failed e-border IT system contracted to a private firm. Robin  Cohen shows how the policy of restricting immigration may unintentionally produce the opposite result, as shown by the failure of US immigration policies from 1970-2010. Cohen leaves us much food for thought, with his ironic prompt that ‘More Farage might well lead to ‘More immigration’ in the UK.

We sincerely hope that the articles in this issue provide a range of perspectives on immigration, written by those who actively research and practice in the ever-complex field of mobility, diversity and social change.

(1) Danny Dorling (2014: 3) Inequality and the 1%, Verso: London.
(2) Dorling states, ‘The vast majority of us are becoming more equal and often poorer than we were in 2008 […]. It is the top 1per cent who increasingly are not part of this new austerity norm’ (2014:4). In the UK, falling within the top 1 per cent is defined as having a total household income, before tax, of £160.000 defined as per year, for a childless couple (2014: 2), although this income ‘puts you among the very poorest of the 1 per cent’ (2014: 6).
(3) Danny Dorling (2014: 144).
(4) Alberto Nardelli ‘All change in Britain of multiparty politics’, The Guardian, 22 November 2014, page 8.
(5) Alberto Nardelli ‘The figures –and their implications’, The Guardian, 29 November 2014, pages 8-9.


Suzanne Hall is an Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Senior Research Associate at LSE Cities. She is author of the monograph ‘City, Street and Citizen’, and the articles ‘Super-diverse Street: A Trans-ethnography across Migrant Localities’ and the ‘Politics of Belonging’


Image Credit: UKIP Election Poster, 2014