The numbers game around immigration statistics has turned into a bloody battle.
In January, Polly Toynbee called the Coalition’s benefits campaign to stir up ‘prejudice against the poor' a ‘bloody battle’. It had, she wrote, initiated a ‘clever marketing’ campaign ‘where slippery figures abound’ as part of a ‘virulent debate’ designed to stir up ‘a gale of public opinion’ to persuade ‘80% of the people that the poor are the problem and welfare the cause of the debt crisis’. But this analysis fits parallels the campaign and debates on immigration statistics running throughout January.
This other ‘bloody battle’ – on immigration, was clearly designed to deflect political opposition from record figures on unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, and to ‘blame the immigrants' for unemployment, and to widen the ‘bloody battle’ on welfare ‘reforms’ to ‘migrants on the dole’ and ‘benefit tourists’ from the EU. An underlying theme was to continue discrediting Labour’s record as one commentator noted: ‘Cameron and Osborne, when worried about an issue, still think and act like an opposition. They are swift, intensely political, and relentlessly focussed on their opponents’ in the Labour leadership’.
Thus the political campaign on immigration statistics kept returning to Labour’s record – the media reminding us of Gordon Brown’s xenophobic speeches, on his ‘British jobs for British workers’ pledge and yet, as Chris Grayling and Damien Green described it in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Labour didn’t care who landed in Britain’. The Tories’ political narrative constantly blames Labour for ‘out of control’ immigration which it uses as the rationale for the alleged powerful ‘cap’ the government has now placed on immigrant numbers.
Benefit tourism and the Eurosceptics
The numbers offensive which began on 6 January had been foreshadowed in the background campaign by Eurosceptic Department for Work and Pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, which started with an EU Commission decision in September 2011 objecting to Britain’s rules on welfare, claiming they discriminated unfairly against foreigners. Duncan Smith argued in September that ‘benefit tourists’ could cost ‘British taxpayers tens of billions of pounds’: ‘what the EU is now trying to do is get us to provide benefits for those who come to this country with no intention to work and no other means of supporting themselves, with the sole purpose of accessing a more generous benefit system … These new proposals pose a fundamental challenge to the UK’s social contract. They could mean the British taxpayer paying out over £2 billion extra a year in benefits to people who have no connection to our country and who have never paid in a penny in tax’.
It became clear that the publication during January of the ‘research’ on migrants which claimed 370,000 migrants were on the dole was part of the Coalition’s political campaign against the Commission and a possible sideswipe at the EU European Court in Luxembourg. Interestingly, the research was not presented to parliament, or the relevant select committee but released in an article in the rightwing and polemical Daily Telegraph. It was Duncan Smith who, in the end, had to apologise to Sir Michael Scholar at the UK Statistics Authority who had pointed out to him that the figures had not been vetted as ‘official’ or accurate prior to release. The Authority rejected the idea that the government could publish ‘research’ which did not necessarily have the rigour of official statistics.
Spinning and weaving
The battle over statistics, spin and stereotypes began with a Migration Watch report on 6 January on youth unemployment and immigration. The government then released a study from the official Migration Advisory Committee on 10 January clearly to justify the ‘cap’ on migrants. There was a release by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) of its report on the same day. Then came the release of statistics from a survey of ‘migrants on the dole’ by two ministers Chris Grayling and Damien Green on 20 January. It was significant that after the figures were released, they were widely critiqued and derided as cynical spin, and as a ‘shameful spinning of the facts’. This of course was exactly the point – the arguments over statistics and research had never been about research methods and samples. The statistics were simply ‘marketed’ to imprint in the public consciousness ‘migrants on the dole’, ‘benefit tourists’, and establish ‘links between immigration and welfare’. Arguments then raged between those who believed the data proved that immigration was good for the economy and actually increased growth even in a recession, and those who saw immigration as directly causing unemployment and its dire effects on the young.
It didn’t really matter what the reports said. The government’s Migration Advisory Committee report on impacts of immigration had cautiously suggested some impact on employment from non-EU immigration. This was ‘spun’ dramatically by the Daily Express in headlines declaring ‘Migrants do take British jobs: official report now confirms what the Daily Express has said all along’. The paper carried articles, including front page stories linking immigration to jobs, and the paper’s political editor Macer Hall demanded that: ‘The proponents of mass immigration should surely apologise to this newspaper and to the nation as a whole’. He called for the government to push on to take ‘some tough decisions about curbing the rights of foreigners to join relatives living in the UK’. Ann Widdecombe, a former home office minister and a columnist on the Express, took advantage of the anti-immigration climate to demand the implementation of her old demands: ‘the housing of all new asylum seekers in secure reception centres until their cases have been determined’ and ‘the setting up of a removals agency’.
On 10 January the Independent‘s banner headline was ‘Immigration does not cause unemployment' citing a major research study from the ‘respected’ NIESR headed now by Jonathan Portes, former Chief Economist at the Cabinet Office and an adviser to Tony Blair in his Performance and Innovation Unit. The report argued that there was little evidence that native workers are harmed by migrant workers and that the broader fiscal (ie tax) impact is ‘likely to be positive’. The report reflected the market approach to immigration under Labour arguing that ‘during periods of lower growth, migrant inflows are associated with … slower (dole) claimant growth’. The NIESR director released the report through an ‘exclusive’ on the front page of the Independent specifically aimed at refuting the Migration Watch study on youth unemployment released a few days before. Portes himself launched a specific criticism of Migration Watch which he said was ‘playing fast and loose with evidence’.
The immigration statistics debate exposed the fact that the world of ‘research’ on immigration is totally politicised, and spun mainly from the shadowy world of think-tanks. It is now accepted that new political strategies need be ‘evidence-based’, but, as Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi pointed out: ‘The problem with evidence particularly statistical evidence, is that you can nearly always find a way to make it fit your own argument’.
Migration Watch UK, one of the protagonists in January, is one of the best known of the think-tanks involved in political research and has, since its foundation in 2001, had the agenda of drastically reducing immigration. Its advisory council contains the highly controversial Professor of Demography at Oxford University, David Coleman, three retired immigration judges, and Professor Roger Williams of University College London whose ‘chief concern is the increasing frequency of Hepatitis B, HIV and other infections due to failure to test immigrants from countries with high infection rates.' Migration Watch UK believes that research should be entirely based on policy change. Sir Andrew Green, chair and main spokesman, criticised a widely-quoted Ipsos MORI poll report commissioned by the Oxford University Observatory on Migration because: ‘the survey itself bore no relation to the government’s actual policies. The general approach was not described, nor were respondents asked about any of the policy measures actually proposed. On the contrary, they were asked about a range of matters unrelated to present policies.' Migration Watch UK has a Malthusian emphasis on population growth and could probably claim responsibility for embedding key ideas into political discourse about ‘our overcrowded island’, Britain being ‘full’, and immigrants and foreign-born families being the main contributors to population growth; and immigration on its present scale as ‘unsustainable’.
Despite the fact that mainstream academic research refutes these notions, as a leading social geographer put it, ‘places rarely suffer from having too many people, but frequently suffer from a few people taking far too much’. Nevertheless, Migration Watch UK, with the assistance of key parts of the media, has proved to be able to effectively mobilise public opinion around its ideas. In November 2011, with the help of the Sun and the Daily Mail, Migration Watch UK gathered 100,000 signatures within a week for an e-petition calling for the government ‘to take all necessary steps to get immigration down to a level that will stabilise our population as close to the present level as possible’. The petition is scheduled for debate in parliament with no doubt yet more media attention.
Migration Watch UK has helped to create a ‘cross party group on balanced migration’ in parliament with Frank Field (Labour) and Nicholas Soames (Conservative) as joint chairs and secretarial services and research provided by Migration Watch. In response, the Migrants Rights Network has taken over the secretariat of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration ‘to support the emergence of mainstream, progressive policy debate on migration in the UK parliament … and act as a source of well-evidenced and independent information on key migration issues’. Its chair is Jack Dromey, former trade union leader and now a Labour shadow minister.
Think-tanks replacing politicians
As the reports and counter reports hit the press, it was think-tanks, rather than politicians, that were being called upon to comment in the media. In addition to those looked at in depth below, there was the new (optimistic) British Future centre-left think-tank which published a ‘proud to be British’ poll in the first week of January. The right-wing Centre for Policy Studies’ Harriet Sergeant appeared on Newsnight on 20 January and Don Flynn from Migrants’ Rights Network was interviewed on the BBC News 24 channel.
But most of the debate belonged to the bigger hitters. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) was represented by Matt Cavanagh, in charge of its current ‘Progressive Migration’ research project. (Cavanagh is a former Oxford philosophy don, an international consultant with the Boston Consulting Group and a special adviser to the Labour government between 2003 and 2010. He was in Gordon Brown’s Number 10 Policy Unit from 2007 to 2010.) Cavanagh appeared on Newsnight and other programmes and in blogs for the New Statesman during January. IPPR has not always had a ‘progressive’ image on immigration. In April 2011, it produced a report No easy options (funded by the Returns and Reintegration Fund administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) which the Guardian suggested was ‘seized on by the government to support its hardline stance’. The report angered anti-deportation campaigners by suggesting more returns of ‘irregular migrants’, rejecting the idea of an amnesty and the prioritising of taking back the ‘moral high ground’ (that campaigners were winning at the grassroots via emotional campaigning on cases) by accelerating deportations.
The new director of Demos, David Goodhart, also appeared regularly in the media. Goodhart was previously editor of Prospect from 1995, first sounded the death knell for multiculturalism in 2004 and has also advocated that ‘Labour should become the anti-immigration party’. Demos also put up Max Wind-Cowie who is in charge of the Demos project ‘Progressive Conservatism’, which has an advisory group which includes Frank Field, academic John Gray and Frederick Mount and is chaired by Universities Minister David Willetts.
The BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme on 20 January, featuring a debate on the government’s survey on immigration and the benefits system, provides a good sample of the real underlying debate – with Migration Watch UK (Sir Andrew Green) the IPPR (Matt Cavanagh) and the minister Chris Grayling all interviewed. Labour declined to take part. But Chris Bryant, the shadow immigration minister on Newsnight the same day took the ‘tough’ security line arguing that the statistics showed the Coalition was lax on secure borders – immigration numbers were going up, and those arrested at the borders was going down.
Demos was represented by Max Wind-Cowie on the BBC Radio 4 You and Yours programme on 23 January following up on one of the more xenophobic subthemes of the statistics debate – Roma Big Issue sellers. One of Wind-Cowie’s (somewhat surreal) arguments was that the Roma sellers could, as ‘unproductive migrants’, undermine public support for ‘productive’ migrants. In a bizarre twist on the labour displacement argument, he suggested that Roma sellers were actually displacing home-grown sellers, almost a direct quote from the Daily Mail campaign on ‘Romanians’ the day before which had managed to add sexism to the nativist message: ‘with women from the poorer parts of Eastern Europe, in their long skirts and headscarves, increasingly replacing the male, native British homeless people.'
Fay Selvan, CEO of the Big Issue in the North, on the programme defended the Roma sellers and refuted the scare statistics and arguments but no doubt the link between Roma Gypsies and benefit tourism had already been established in the minds of Radio 4’s lunchtime listeners. Wind-Cowie’s boss Goodhart had already mentioned ‘Romany’ sellers in his contribution to the Newsnight debate on 20 January. Significantly, perhaps, the theme of ‘Bulgarian and Romanian Big Issue Sellers’ had been introduced powerfully in Sir Andrew Green’s contribution to the Today programme on 20 January, the morning when the Telegraph splashed its headline on ‘370,000 migrants on the dole’.
The power of the ‘commentariat’
The Roma Big Issue sellers theme indicates how debates on immigration numbers and statistics are designed by the populist right (which usually initiate them) to stir up ‘a gale of public opinion’. These episodes are then linked to opinion polls which ‘prove’ that xenophobic and even racist politics are popular and can win elections. They can then go on to also influence apparently independent journalists. John Humphrys reflected the tone of much of the media when he introduced Chris Grayling on 20 January to comment on his statistics. He stated that immigration is one of those ‘touchstone issues’ and ‘potentially so incendiary’. Exactly …
Even the flagship Channel 4 News succumbed to the commonsense xenophobic climate being created: on 18 January, following release of the worst unemployment figures for decades, their lead story included the notion that immigration causes unemployment with a reporter sent north to Doncaster (where coincidentally Ed Miliband has his constituency) to investigate.
The New Statesman, in the middle of the January ‘bloody battle’, had a timely feature on ‘Are the media racist?’ Ever-vigilant Mehdi Hasan reported on the ‘commentariat’ – those journalists who write Comment pieces and are taken seriously by most of those who constitute the political class. In one week last December, three of the country’s best selling newspapers the Telegraph, the Mail and the Express and their Sunday stable-mates failed to publish a single column by a non-white person. The liberal/left papers the Guardian and Observer had four non-white columnists out of forty-eight, the Independent and Independent on Sunday one out of thirty-four. Only two of the first hundred witnesses to the Leveson enquiry on the press have been non-white. Hasan argues that ‘white commentators often dictate what is and isn’t racism, what is and isn’t discrimination’. Very few of the ‘commentariat’ would have any understanding or even a passing experience of the lives of Roma migrants from Romania legally acting as self-employed workers on the streets of British cities.
Looking back over the January debates, Don Flynn certainly thought that the government and its slippery figures had been trounced: ‘The government’s narrative on the ‘problems’ of immigration began to fall apart at the seams last week, as the claims of Ministers on migration and benefit claims dissolved under closer examination. It has been a setback for the anti-immigration lobby.' But this is clearly not how the media advisers and pollsters for the government see it. Tories in the Coalition might well argue that the exercise was a populist success further embedding their key narratives on immigration and unemployment and benefit tourism in the common sense of the media and popular politics. Certainly Damien Green seems confident and hardly on the back foot in launching a series of measures in the last week of the month which will mean a ‘No Borders’ policy for all the rich and famous. He is apparently promoting an immigration policy where only the ‘brightest and best’ migrants will be chosen in future: ‘A new ”selective” immigration policy that will give preferential treatment to investors, entrepreneurs and world-class artists, dancers, musicians and academic … We want permanently to make Britain the most attractive country in the world for the brightest and the best. The era of mass immigration is over.'
Those who campaign against the far-right populism of the Tories recognise that when the government uses the term ‘foreigners’, as in ‘new plans to cut the number of foreigners settling in the UK' it actually means to bring in a ‘guest-worker’ scheme with time-limited work in the UK. But the time limits have already threatened the rights of asylum seekers, many of whom are in limbo having been given only three years leave to remain. Many asylum seekers have become ‘foreign criminals’ simply through working or having false documents. The British taxpayer is funding the work of Frontex and Fortress Europe which defends borders against thousands of asylum seekers from war zones and repressive regimes with a strong case for sanctuary, making deals with regimes like Libya’s Gaddafi. There are few think-tank projects or pieces of political research that go beyond the analyses of ‘managed migration’ and are looking at such issues. Where they exist, in for instance Corporate Watch, Statewatch and the IRR, they are rarely recognised by the media or by politicians in any of the main parties.
There is a sense in which debates which solely contest the statistics of immigration miss many of the points of anti-racist campaigning. Behind the statistics, are unsavoury politics. The political polls are suggesting the Con-Dem Coalition is, thus far, successful in both creating and exploiting commonsense racism and xenophobia. Such a climate would, of course, encourage a new wave of dangerous extremist violence. In the short term, though, lies, damn lies and statistics seem to be a useful marketing strategy for the far-right populist party British Conservatives are becoming.
Read an IRR News Story: ‘Revival of the numbers game?’
Read an IRR News Story: ‘Anti-immigrant racism gets academic veneer’