An appeal to the Labour Party to stop the anti-immigration rhetoric: Restricting migrants’ benefits makes no sense and they should know better

It is disappointing to see that the Labour party has given in to the anti-immigration game by pandering to the – presumed – anti-immigrants feelings of parts of the population. At the special election question time, Labour decided to reiterate its proposal to limit immigrants’ eligibility to benefits in the first two years they reside in the country.

This is not so much an affront to the party’s founding principles as it is an affront to reason. It misrepresents the problem the country faces, it will do little to reduce immigration, and is at odds with the aim to protect all workers.

Immigration is not a problem

Limiting immigrants’ access is wrong because it validates the misplaced idea that immigrants are to blame for the problems the country faces. It’s obvious to everyone that Labour is ‘piggy backing’ on UKIP’s and conservatives’ manifestos in an attempt to capture some of their voters. But Labour cannot outcompete UKIP and conservatives who will always be more able to use, and benefit from, an anti-immigrant rhetoric that labour can be.

This cheap electoral ploy would not be so disheartening if it was anchored in some underlying reality. It is not. As a result the proposal makes no sense.

Immigrants of course did not cause the financial crisis. They did not create the subsequent debt and economic crises either. On the contrary, their contribution to the fiscal position of the UK has been shown to be positive. Immigrants’ younger age profile means they are less likely to rely on the health care system but contribute more. This mitigates the problem arising from ageing. They are more likely to be in work and less likely to claim benefits so that on the net the welfare system’s position is improved by immigration.

The number of immigrants coming into the country is also thrown around carelessly, often comparing what net immigration was like in some semi distant past with what it has been in the recent past. But the reality is that the UK population growth rate is not particularly high, so that there might be a distributional issue around where that population is located in the country but not an aggregate issue of the total number of people living the country. The population density of London is more than 10 times that of the country, whereas average national population density increased by roughly 10% between 1981 and 2009.

Immigrants might be putting – perceived or real – pressures in communities receiving large influx of immigration, but what is the nature of the problem? Most often it is about pressures on public services and housing, not hordes of immigrants claiming benefits. This is a problem about the distribution of the population across the country and this problem is not caused by immigration. And given that immigrants improve the viability of the state, they make the problem easier to solve.

Why it won’t fix the actual problems

Assuming immigration is a problem, is this proposed policy likely to solve it? No. And again elementary logic suffices to reach this conclusion. Reducing benefits cannot substantially reduce immigration if most immigrants come to work, which they do. The amazing thing is that this is acknowledged by the very parties that want to restrict benefits.

The ridiculous discussion about the ‘freedom to claim benefits’ is not about benefits at all, it is about creating a minimum floor for workers, whether native or immigrant, to survive while they look for a job. This is something the Labour Party should understand. Such a floor is conducive to the bargaining power of all workers, both natives and immigrants. If restricting benefits to immigrants won’t stop immigration, what it will do is force them to accept almost any job. To the extent that employers use immigrants to undercut labour standards, restricting benefits will accentuate this problem and is therefore contradictory with the proposal to fight such abuses.

The notion that one can comfortably live off job seekers’ allowance while doing nothing to search for a job is a myth. If you believe it, just look at the requirements imposed on benefit recipients and the sanctions that are imposed for not looking sufficiently actively for jobs or not attending an interview, or losing a job that you were given. Unemployment benefits are not generous, certainly compared to many other European countries.

The solution should therefore not be to restrict benefits to immigrants but to use the extra fiscal revenues that they generate to alleviate pressure on certain public services and to rebalance the UK economy regionally away from the south east and sectorally away from financial services.

Note: All the numbers are taken from a related post I’ve written on this topic.