Immigration: the cognitive red herring of UK politics

Clegg v Farage pic

Clash of the titans? Well… maybe just a clash.

Have you ever wondered why immigration is sitting at the top of the political agenda, rubbing shoulders with the crisis in Syria, the economy, energy prices, the cost of living and so on? Why the deputy PM and self-styled scourge of the Westminster bubble, Nigel Farage are duking it out on live TV over it?

It’s an election manifesto slam dunk, every established political party needs a policy to cut levels of immigration.  Otherwise, we’ll all wake up to discover a Polish family living in the garden shed.  And every road sign will be in Bulgarian.  And you’ll get pickled cabbage and pig’s kneecaps instead of good old British pizza down the local British kebab shop.  You’ll be forced to drink fermented beetroot juice in the pub instead of a nice cold pint of British Heineken lager.  Good old British Guinness will be lost forever.

It’s not immigration we face.  It’s the apocalypse… or is it just a confirmation bias trick? Could all this fuss be a great example of how our brains process unconscious emotional data and turn it into faulty logical arguments?

(Clue: Yes it is…)

To ignore immigration would be, for the mainstream parties, to risk losing votes to UKIP or exacerbating splits in the ranks of backbenchers, alienating local parties in high immigrant areas and crippling the chances of loyal local councillors of getting re-elected in immigrant sensitive districts.  Worse than that, the press would incinerate anyone stupid enough to ask the blindingly obvious question…

“Sorry.  Er, why is immigration so important?”


It’s a logic vs. thinking processes problem.

It’s a great example of how irrational politics can be.  You can look at almost anything else that might affect how you cast your vote, like tax, banking, unemployment, the NHS, education, the cost of living, public services, foreign policy, climate change, transport, defence spending, pensions, welfare (or whatever) and put your finger on a clear, specific item that makes you lean one way or the other.  But not immigration.  Immigration is fundamentally wooly.  The trouble is, nobody seems to know why it is so important or what the precise cost/benefit of tackling immigration would be.

Most people just feel very strongly that something has to be done.

You see, immigration matters to the life of the UK in more or less the same the way that vomiting matters when you’ve drunk fifteen pints of lager and been arrested for pissing in a doorway.  It’s the icing on the bad news cake, i.e  even if  you weren’t vomiting, you’d still be locked-up, you’d still have a hangover in the morning, you’ll still face the magistrate and your lifestyle is still damaging your health.  Being sick on top of that little lot is an inconvenience, but in the scheme of things, pretty irrelevant.

When you apply some analytical thinking to the immigration issue, it’s not hard to see why it’s definitely one for the back-burner, not the spotlight:


1. It’s not about the money, money, money:

Measuring the financial impact of immigration on the UK is very complex.  We simply don’t know how to measure it.  It’s not just a question of working out simply how many immigrants are on benefits, or use the NHS, or are in low wage jobs or higher rate taxpayers or whatever.  It’s whether they qualify for tax credits, or what affect their workplace benefits have on company profits, or how they increase or decrease employers national insurance contributions… and hundreds of other little variables.  It’s about calculating the effect of immigration on big concepts like GDP, and small concepts like how the people in the poor part of Barnsley feel about the queues at the local Job Centre, and everything in-between.

Even if you can wade through endless sets of numbers (which I’ve tried) and compare figures against public spending and so on, it’s hard to form a conclusion other than this:  There aren’t enough immigrants to explain more than a fraction of the £1.3 trillion public debt.

In fact, you can review the Centre for Reasearch and Analysis of Migration study on the fiscal effects of immigration here. Bascially, since 1999 immigrants are by and large better educated, more productive and less likely to receive benefits than UK residents.  But BBC independent economists looked over the figures, and analysis of the fiscal impact of immigration from 1995 – 2011 (here), shows the numbers shifted around 1999 and before that, immigrants have cost the UK about £95bn. By those calculations, immigration makes a tiny contribution to the nation’s finances, or maybe cost us £95bn – actually not that much in terms of public spending – over a 15 year period.

It doesn’t really matter which figures are more accurate or important, because even if immigrants cost three times as much as the UCL estimate, the inescapable fact is if you went back in time to 1994 and magically got rid of the last 20 years of immigration, the country would still be at least £1 trillion in debt.  That’s how much the rest of us cost.  Which is a lot.


2. It’s a faulty assumption to view additional debt as lost spending:

What we are seeing here is a set of logical parameters which are, broadly speaking, little more than assumptions. This is a common cognitive malfunction when we’re problem solving, we assume that, without the issue we’re applying our brains to, a whole load of other things would have happened, which isn’t necessarily the case. It’s a bit like me getting cross with the kids because if they hadn’t been making so much noise, I wouldn’t have spilled my coffee all over the carpet because I wasn’t looking at what I was doing. It’s an emotional “what if?”

This is a common problem in political thinking, we see it all the time – consider that, in the debate over free schools, one of the central arguments is they take money away from other schools, but the differential in numbers between the two (approx. 170 free schools to over 22,000 state schools) mean a) it’s only about 0.008% of education funding that goes to free schools and b) that funding would be allocated to schools as opposed to spent elsewhere within the UK education sector budget.

Let’s say we did go back twenty years and make all the immigrants magically disappear.  Would we be better off?  No.  The size of the national debt is such that we would have borrowed / overspent by a few less percent (which is a kind of saving) – but that is no logical reason to assume we would have seen more money spent on the remaining UK population.  The immigrants may have pushed the overspend higher, but they didn’t take anything away from anyone else in terms of public spending.  The government has been overspending by about £150bn per year for a long time.  Reducing that overspend by £10 or £20 billion might mean we exit our years of austerity a few months sooner, or reduce the cost of servicing the debt by a few percent, but in the scheme of things it’s marginal.

The problem is massive government overspending, which suggests a system that is flawed.  That’s the bulk of the problems, anyway.  Immigration is a bit of an afterthought.  Certainly, spending more money to manage a new system to limit immigration won’t help, it might just about pay for itself, but it’s like expecting a bandaid to cure a nasty case of arthritis.


3.  Fairness doesn’t logically attach to nationality:

One of the key facets of the immigration debate is fairness.  They (the argument goes) aren’t entitled to welfare, health care, housing and education in the same way UK residents are.  Why?  Well obviously, because they’re foreign.  But that argument can be made in all manner of different areas of policy.  Let’s try a few:

  • Example a) People who suffer bad health from smoking, drinking and eating junk food and old age get more then their fair share of health care compared with healthy younger people who don’t get as much cancer, heart disease and obesity.
  • Example b) People who don’t work and require social housing get more than their fair share of tax revenues than people who have good jobs and can afford a home / mortgage.
  • Example c) People who get their car broken into, their home burgled or get mugged get more of their fare share of policing resources than people without cars (but with burglar alarms) who avoid high crime neighbourhoods when they go out for a drink with their friends.
  • Example d) People who are men get more than their fair share of wages (and square metres of toilet facilities) than women.
  • Example e) People who are white get more than their fare share of well paid jobs, promotions and TV shows made for their demographic segment.
  • Example f) People who are ethnic minorities get more than their fare share of prison.
  • Example g) Women use up more than their fare share of toilet space because they won’t piss standing-up into a trough/over their shoes/ on the floor like men and farm animals do.

You can argue the toss about those examples, no doubt, but the point remains, the fairness of public life in the UK (or lack of it) is a function of a much more complex framework of legislation than simply drawing a line between a UK-born resident and an immigrant.  The issues we face regarding fairness aren’t limited, or even particularly well expressed, by choosing nationality or ethnicity as a dividing line.


4.  The global economy isn’t defined by immigration, it’s multi-national:

We don’t hear many anti-immigrant political arguments that ask people to buy British products and services over foreign imports.  We don’t see UKIP protesting outside Deutsche Bank, or JP Morgan, or Google, or Honda, or Ikea asking those companies to go back home.  Of course not.  Maybe they think that if they made immigration much harder, we wouldn’t have thousands of foreigners coming over here, bringing their global corporations with them.  But working out what is, and isn’t, British is increasingly complex in a world where we import more than we export, where UK citizens work in companies that operate all over the world.  Where we’re connected to everything online.

Within the global context of business, the immigrant workforce is one variable in a network of other variables which may or may not benefit one nation over another.  According to economic migration experts like Thomas Liebig from the OECD or Carlos Vargas-Silva, an economist at the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, immigration probably makes such small difference to the global economic picture – and the local economic outlook for a country that, all in all, compared with something like the international banking crisis or the impact of emerging markets on older, more indebted economies (like ours) it’s neither here nor there.


5.  The impact of immigration on jobs isn’t clear  – you anti-immigrant, or anti-capitalist?

You probably have, somewhere in your home, an item of clothing that was made by a child labourer for poverty wages.  You might not like it, but in the scheme of things, a pair of socks (for example) that were unethically produced are a minor consideration compared with paying the bills, holding down a job, looking after your kids or taking care of your social responsibilities to friends, neighbours and family.  By the same token, a company has to make a profit, right?  So cheap labour makes a lot of economic sense for big employers.

Now, if you had to pay three times as much for a pair of ethical socks, you might logically expect Asda or whoever to sell less socks in general.  By the same token, if you had to pay higher wage bills for your workforce, you could logically expect the employer to employ fewer people, or reduce the cost of their working conditions or employee benefits.  There would be a knock-on effect.  What we know for sure, is you won’t give up wearing socks and companies won’t give up making a profit.

If the cheap immigrant labour disappeared tomorrow, then logically, more UK born workers would get those vacant jobs (unless the company decides to move to a country where labour is cheaper, in which case they won’t).  But they’ll have to work for the same wages, or maybe a smaller workforce that has to work longer hours for a higher wage, or work for higher wages for the same hours, but in worse conditions.

The point here is, the economic conditions that place immigrants in competition for jobs with UK born residents won’t change if immigration drops.  If you’re a low paid worker, life is tough, regardless of your nationality.  It might just get worse, not better, if the low wage workforce gets smaller or more expensive.

The immigrant isn’t to blame, the employer and the nature of supply side economics is the problem.  Tackling immigration can’t fix that.  It’s a function of the labour market, regulate that differently and you’ll make a change.  It might reduce the competitiveness of British industry, but then again, so would cutting the low wage labour pool by the immigrants that are currently feeding the economic recovery.

Image courtesy of Matthew MacNish


And after all that… we’re what?

A few percentage points better off than we were before in theoretical economic terms.  The NHS will still be creaking under the weight of the nation’s health needs.  Schools will still be way down the league tables compared with the rest of the developed world.  The climate will still be changing.  Our energy bills will still be rising.  Unemployment might dip, slightly, but long term and youth employment will still remain too high.  Inflation will keep going.  The cost of living will still be rising.  Bankers will still get their bonuses. Train fares will still be the highest in Europe for the worst service.  Traffic  jams and roadworks will still be there.  The old age pension will still keep dwindling.  Petrol will still be expensive.  Prisons still overflowing.  Rural broadband will still be rubbish and Alzheimer’s will still threaten to cost the country countless billions twenty years down the line.

And so on.

All of those issues, if tackled, could affect a real change in the quality of life for UK residents.  For the economy.  For public finances.  For taxpayers and children alike.  For UK born citizens and immigrants alike too.  However, tackling immigration will only make a slight difference to any of it.


Confirmation bias wins over logic: the essence of immigration politics…

So basically, if you dig around in the numbers, consider the arguments, consider the social impact of immigration within low wage communities and consider what reducing the levels of immigration (after all, nobody is talking about stopping it entirely or deporting 12% of the UK population or whatever) what you’re left with is… not much difference to anything.

That’s counter intuitive.  It feels like tackling immigration would make a huge difference.  That’s because it’s very visible.  We see immigrants, we hear them, we notice them in a way we don’t notice people who are just like us.  We know where they’re coming from too, they’re not coming out of the social woodwork, they’re obviously coming from another country.  That means we can identify an easy solution, namely closing the gate to keep them out.

An easy solution in a world of complex riddles like the economy, or relationship between different elements of society, is a compelling thought.  Everything is so complicated these days, a simple problem with a simple solution is a breath of fresh air.  Which is probably why politicians love it, immigration is very good for stirring “we’re all in it together” style soundbites.

The fact it won’t really make any difference to anything else we complain about is harder to explain.  It’s a negative conclusion.  It doesn’t make sense to our emotional brains, or our sense of social control.  It’s like a Meerkat turning round to the other meerkats and saying “you know, rather than me squeaking if I see an eagle, why don’t we try to tackle the systemic issues within the ecosystem that places us at a lower point in the food chain?”.

Yeah.  Like the other Meerkats would buy that schtick.

Our emotional brains make us cling to ideas that feel like good decisions, even if they’re flawed, we call this effect “confirmation bias” meaning if we want something to be true, we’ll often construct rational arguments to prove why it is true, even if it’s illogical .  It’s how we define the concept of hindsight – because everyone experiences a moment when, removed from the emotional heat of the moment by the passage of time, we can look back at events and consider the choices we made at the time in a more detached, analytical framework – often deciding we could have chosen more wisely.

That would be every voter if we wake up in 2015 with a UKIP government.  We’ll look back and say, after the Romanians and Bulgarians are stopped in their tracks at the border “Okay UKIP, now how are you going to fix the energy supply / carbon emissions / cost of living / economy / education / NHS?” and with hindsight, think that the whole immigration thing turned out to be a bit of a damp squib and maybe voting for someone else would have been a better choice.

My advice would be to cast your vote for the party that makes a case for fixing the issues that affect you, your kids, your community, your prospects, your bank balance and your health the most, first.  Try listing them out.  If immigration ranks in the top 5, vote for the party that’s got the toughest stance for that problem.  If it’s somewhere down the list, stop caring about it for a bit until the important stuff gets fixed.

(PS.  You might have a long wait for that.)