Lord Glasman’s call for an end to immigration shows that there is a nasty populist streak to Blue Labour.
The counter-arguments to it are:
- Immigration has, on average, raised UK wages and insofar as it has had an adverse effect on unskilled workers, this is small.
- Many other developments have done more damage than immigration to the working class: the decline of trades unions; deindustrialization; the emergence of an army of cheap labour in Asia; the way technical change has empowered bosses relative to unskilled workers; and so on. It’s perverse to focus on immigration whilst ignoring these.
- “Controlling” immigration has a deadweight cost - the taxes necessary to pay for border guards, and the loss of liberty for ethnic minorities who’ll be harassed to prove they have a right to be here.
- There is, y'know, such a thing as freedom.
- Just because people don’t migrate to the UK does not mean they have no effect on UK wages. Factor price equalization tells us that foreign workers can depress UK wages, whether they move here or not.
Strong as these arguments might seem, public opinion is with Glasman and against me. One Ipsos-Mori poll (pdf) found that 64% agree with the statement “there are too many immigrants in Britain” and only 18% disagree.
This raises the question. Why, given the paucity of its economic impact, is there so much hostility to immigration?
Some of it is unrelated to labour economics; the same poll found (pdf) more concern about “pressure on public services” than upon wages. But this seems nonsensical; how long would the NHS last if it sacked its immigrant staff?
All this raises a possibility - that opposition to immigration is stoked up by the power of the press. But is it? The evidence seems mixed.
The strongest argument for it is that, when people use their own direct experience, they don’t find immigration a problem. When asked “how much of a problem, if at all, do you think
immigration is in Britain at the moment?” people split 74-21 in favour of saying it was. But when asked how much of a problem it is in their local area, they split 71-24 against the notion.
But there’s other evidence to lead us to doubt the influence of the press:
- According to the same poll, only 19% of people get their information about immigration from the tabloids, compared to 55% who get it from the TV and radio.
- Even young people, who are less likely to read newspapers at all, believe immigration is a problem. Yes, they are less likely to think so than older folk, but then young people are normally more liberal anyway.
- UK attitudes to immigration are only around the average level for Europe (pdf) generally, so our nasty right-wing press hasn‘t led to atypical levels of hostility.
- Even a majority of readers of “quality” newspapers think immigration is a problem. Yes, more Daily Mail readers think it is, but this just raises the old cause-vs.-effect question: are people bigots because they read the Mail, or do they read the Mail because they are bigots?
What’s more, there is an alternative hypothesis to explain hostility to immigration that leaves out the press altogether.
One element of this is the salience effect. Immigrants are more noticeable than other longer-term structural forces that have weakened the position of unskilled workers, and so they get a disproportionate amount of blame.
Another element is an instinctive hostility to out-groups. Whether it be lefties hating the right, locals’ suspicion of grockles or the middle class hating chavs or - yes - my hatred of public schoolboys, we just don’t like people unlike ourselves. There was colossal inter-tribal violence even before the invention of writing, and we were killing Jews and Muslims decades before the invention of the printing press. Antipathy to immigrants just continues the story.
Which brings me to a thought. Could it be that the left is predisposed to exaggerate the power of the press because doing so provides a comfortable explanation for what is an otherwise unpleasant fact - that the British people don’t share our beliefs for some deep-seated reasons? The media are just a scapegoat. And we all love a scapegoat.