It’s “Immigration Hysteria Day”. Again. Here’s how Lib Dems need to respond

by Stephen Tall on November 27, 2013

Another day, another bout of “the UK’s about to be invaded by 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians” hysteria. But today it’s not Nigel Farage splattering mis-shapen statistics into the debate: it’s the Prime Minister, David Cameron – increasingly resembling Mr Farage’s mini-me – who’s showing leadership by following the tabloid press. Here’s how the BBC lists the new proposals:

  • New migrants will not get out-of-work benefits for the first three months
  • Payments will be stopped after six months unless the claimant has a “genuine” chance of a job
  • The “habitual residency test” to determine eligibility for benefits will be tightened up
  • An earnings threshold will be introduced
  • New migrants will not be able to claim housing benefit immediately
  • Those not seeking work will be removed and will not able to return for 12 months
  • Fines for employers not paying the minimum wage will be quadrupled

It’s quite a list. Which makes you think benefits tourism must be a major problem. Except it’s not, not really. Here’s a chart from NIESR’s Jonathan Portes showing the percentage of people who could be affected by the changes:

So, for all the uproar and shouting, 94% of overseas nationals entering the UK do not claim out-of-work benefits within six months – c.6% do, compared to c.13% of UK natives. That’s not nothing, but it puts the issue into perspective, doesn’t it?

That’s also the most charitable explanation I can come up with for Nick Clegg’s decision to go along with the Tory proposals, describing them as “sensible and reasonable”. If he’d said the proposals were “blatantly populist but unlikely to have much effect beyond further stoking the public perception that immigrants are to blame for all our ills” he’d have been closer to the mark.

But Nick is still haunted by the experience of defending the party’s policy of an earned amnesty for illegal immigrants in 2010, which party strategists believe cost the Lib Dems half-a-million votes at the last election. It has the virtue of being the right thing to do (as even hard-line US Republicans have recognised) and the vice of being one of the most unpopular policies you can possibly offer voters.

He unceremoniously ditched it in March in the most depressingly illiberal speech by Nick I’ve heard – though he has at least now torpedoed the idea he floated then of security bonds for immigrants from ‘high-risk’ countries entering the UK.

The Liberal Democrats (of all parties!) cannot fight shy of defending the free movement of labour within the European Union. It isn’t just the principle – though that’s worth defending in itself. It’s also the practice – the UK benefits (and so do migrants) from their freedom to move to find work. Not only are immigrants to the UK less likely to claim benefits or to live in social housing than those born here, they also make a net contribution to the UK’s public finances. (The research underpinning these findings, from UCL’s Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, is available here.) As the Office of Budget Responsibility has pointed out, if you cut down on immigration then you will have to raise taxes or cut spending to pay for the loss of earnings potential.

What can Lib Dems do about this? First, by accepting reality: immigration crackdowns are popular. We might hate that fact, but fact it is. So we start from where we are and we begin to build alliances, as the cross-party Migration Matters group is doing. We make our pro-immigration case passionately, as the Tories’ Anna Soubry memorably did to Nigel Farage’s face on Question Time this month.

And, most importantly of all, we stick up for liberal values, values that are under assault from the combined conservative forces of our governing partners, the official opposition and most of the press – because that’s when our campaigning, our determination to stick up for the underdog, matters most.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.