This article is from the latest e-publication “Remain for Change: Building European solidarity for a democratic economic alternative” from EREP, the network of Economists for Rational Economic Policies.
If UK voters decide to leave the European Union, it will be for one reason above all. From the outset, nationalism bordering on xenophobia has been a defining feature of the Leave campaign. Having lost the argument on broader economic issues, it looks likely the Leave camp will fight the final month of the campaign on immigration. The scapegoating of migrants for the UK’s economic problems will become increasingly unrestrained as the referendum date approaches.
It is not difficult to understand why the Leave camp has chosen to focus on immigration: it is the issue which matters most to those likely to vote for Brexit. Fear that immigration undermines living standards and increases precarity is strong. The anti-European political right has harnessed this fear in a cynical attempt to exploit the insecurity of working class voters in the era of globalisation.
It is countered by Remain campaign statements emphasising that immigration is good for the economy: there are fiscal benefits, immigrants bring much-needed skills and – because migrants are mostly of working age – immigration offsets the effects of an ageing population.
These claims are well-founded. But immigration has both positive and negative effects. Like other facets of globalisation, the impact of immigration is felt unevenly.
At its simplest, the pro-immigration argument is that migrants find work without displacing native workers, thus increasing the size of the economy. This argument is a valid way to dispel the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy and counter naive arguments that immigration automatically costs jobs. But it does not prove immigration is necessarily positive: an increasing population also puts pressure on housing, the environment and public services.
A stronger position is taken by those who claim that immigration increases GDP per capita – migrants raise labour productivity. It is difficult to interpret the evidence on this, since productivity is simultaneously determined by many factors. But even those who argue that the evidence supports this position find the effect to be very weak. Positive effects on productivity are likely to due to skilled migrants being hired as a result of the UK ‘skills gap’.
But not all – or even most – immigrants are in highly skilled work. Despite being well-educated, many come looking for whatever work they can find and are willing to work for low wages. A third of EU nationals in the UK are employed in ‘elementary and processing occupations’. What is the effect of an increasing pool of cheap labour looking for low-skilled work? The evidence suggests there is little effect on employment rates over the long run. There may, however, be displacement effects in the short run. In particular, when the labour market is slack – during recessions – the job prospects of low-paid and unskilled workers may be damaged by migrant inflows.
The evidence on wages likewise suggests effects are small, but again there appears to be some impact of immigration on the wages of low-skilled workers. There is also evidence of labour market segmentation: migrants are disproportionately represented in the seasonal, temporary and ‘flexible’ (i.e. precarious) workforce.
Further, much of the evidence on employment and wages comes from a period of high growth and strong economic performance. This may not be a reliable guide to the future. It is possible that more significant negative effects could emerge, particularly if the economy remains weak.
Economists on the Remain side downplay the negative effects of immigration, presenting it as unequivocally good for the UK economy. It is undoubtedly difficult to present a nuanced argument in the short space available for a media sound-bite. But it is possible that the line taken by the Remain camp plays into the hands of the Leave campaign.
Aside from the skills they bring – around a quarter of NHS doctors are foreign nationals – the main benefit of immigration is the effect on demographics. Without inward migration, the UK working age population would have already peaked. But ageing cannot be postponed indefinitely.
Rapid population growth leads to pressures on public services, housing and infrastructure unless there are on-going programmes of investment, upgrading of infrastructure and house building. Careful planning is required to ensure that public services are available before migrants arrive - otherwise there will be a period while services are under pressure before more capacity is added.
Long-run investment in public services, infrastructure and housing is exactly what the UK has not been doing. Instead, we are more than five years into an unnecessary austerity programme. Our infrastructure is ageing and suffers from lack of capacity. Wages have yet to recover to pre-crisis levels. Government services continue to be cut, even as the population increases.
Those who face pressure on their standard of life from weak wage growth and rising housing costs will understandably find it difficult to disentangle the causes of their problems. For many, immigration will not be the reason – but it will be more visible and tangible than austerity, lack of aggregate demand and weak labour bargaining power.
The root of the problem is that the UK is increasingly a low-wage, low-skill economy. There is a shortage of affordable housing and public services are facing the deepest cuts in decades. None of these problems would be solved by the reorganised Conservative government that would take power immediately following a vote to leave the EU. Instead, it is clear that much of the Leave camp favours a Thatcherite programme of further cuts and deregulation.
Campaigners for Leave will continue to use immigration as a way to take Britain out of the EU. They are wrong. This is cynical exploitation of genuine problems and fears faced by many low-wage workers. Immigration is not a reason to leave the European Union.
But the status quo of high immigration alongside cuts to public services and wage stagnation cannot continue indefinitely. If high levels of migration are to continue, as looks likely, the UK government must consider how to accommodate the rapidly increasing population. Government services must keep pace with population increases. Pressures will be particularly acute in London and the South East.
We must also be more open in admitting that immigration has both costs and benefits – it does not affect the population evenly. Liberal commentators should acknowledge the concerns of those facing the negative effects of immigration. In doing so, they may lessen the chances that voters fall for the false promises of the Leave campaign.
Jo Michell is senior lecturer in economics at the University of the West of England
PRIME will be publishing other articles from "Remain for Change" prior to the Referendum, and on Wednesday15th June 2016 EREP is co-organising a conference from 1800-2030h with the University of Greenwich Political Economy Resource Centre (GPERC), at Greenwich. Details here.