Immigration and the collapse of statistical reason

By Will Davies

This week saw the publication of new economic evidence from University College London (UCL), suggesting that immigration from within the EU benefited the Britain’s public finances to the tune of £20bn between 2001-2011. The report made headlines across much of the media, including the BBC. At a time when migration has been constantly in the news, for reasons to do with UKIP and the government’s withdrawal of support for the Mediterranean migrant rescue operation, the pro-migration economic argument almost seemed to have arrived from a different political epoch.

The macro-economic case for immigration – that it is a net positive for both public finances and economic growth – was integral to New Labour’s tacit, occasionally explicit, support for high levels of immigration. This was a broadly neoliberal type of justification, submerging rights-based arguments within the logic of open markets, as the European Commission has done as well. This was accompanied by a sense of economic realism, that employers would not countenance any drastic political interventions in international labour markets.

What is now better understood, however, is that appeals to statistics or to some apparent economic reality (such as ‘globalisation’) have the opposite of the desired political effect. It is not simply that they do not persuade those who are skeptical of immigration’s benefits; they can result in increased antipathy.  Focus groups carried out by British Future show that when presented with evidence for macro-economic benefits, people will often respond that the statistics are biased, that they are based on inadequate knowledge of who has really entered the country, and that these numbers are being used to justify the political ambitions of policy elites. Such data incites quasi-conspiracy theories, that the government is concealing the truth, sometimes leading respondents to become even more paranoid about immigration. By contrast, qualitative forms of evidence – photographs and anecdotes of ‘successful’ integration of immigrants – are met with a far more positive response.

Senior politicians now understand this far better, which is why few of them have tried to advance any statistical or economic arguments in defense of immigration for some years now. Despite the fact that they have little real power to reduce immigration to the UK significantly (at least for the time being), they tend to avoid explaining the positive economic consequences of this. Instead, the Home Office engages in carefully-managed communications and branding exercises, which seek to convince the public that they are enforcing regulations and borders as forcefully as possible. This includes the controversial twitter campaign of 2013, in which raids on shops by the (then named) UK Border Agency were photographed and tweeted.

Aside from the copious political controversies that surround immigration policy, there is a deep divide between ways of understanding the world at work here, which partly explains why different sides of the debate speak past each other. Those who are fearful of immigration (which includes those whose political careers are based on reassuring those who are fearful of it) are not simply unimpressed by arguments that look at aggregate effects; they are often hostile to this way of understanding the world in itself. The notion that Britain ‘as a whole’ or the economy ‘as a whole’ benefits from something is deemed insulting by someone who wants recognition for them in particular, their high street in particular, their local labour market in particular. Without seeking to justify recent Home Office communications strategies, those strategies cannot be fully understood without grasping something of this schism which cuts deep within contemporary political rationality.

Immigration may be the space in which this conflict now plays out. But, arguably, it derives from a more wide-ranging aspect of New Labour’s political strategy and statecraft, which was characteristic of what Colin Crouch has termed ‘post-democracy’. The sense that centralized experts will ‘deliver’ outcomes to a population, who will experience those outcomes in a subjective, consumerist fashion, discounted the possibility of politics as the discovery of shared languages, the identification of shared social reality, which allows the view from the centre and the view from the periphery to come into some sort of alignment.

Simply put, post-democracy leads elites and citizens to speak different languages and to know society in different ways. Elites then find themselves seeking to ‘reconnect’ with the public, by trying to second guess their concerns and desires. See, for example, the over-generous platform provided to UKIP by the BBC, which speaks of anxiety on the part of liberal elites that they are out of touch with what non-London, non-graduates might be thinking.

The populist, anti-utilitarian, anti-statistical turn is something that both the New Left and the romantic Right have been party to over the years, and is now manifest in Blue Labour efforts to revitalize the first wave of the New Left. Offering even more statistics and economics is likely to play into the hands of racist communitarianism, or at least to exacerbate the sense of powerlessness by that vast majority of people who do not view the world via aggregates. Hence, the question of what type of qualitative evidence might now be used to rebuild a defence of immigration and of multiculturalism is an urgent one, not least because democracy is defeated if common languages are no longer possible.

All of this is frustrating for economists, such as Jonathan Portes, who have mobilized an impressive array of economic data behind a broadly liberal position. Portes has also won a number of twitter spats with right-wingers who he has shown to be manipulating statistics. There are no doubt far more economists under the radar across Whitehall who look at current political rhetoric and communications strategies in despair. But the current split in ways of thinking and understanding the world needs to be taken seriously, and demands new ways of understanding the importance of the particular or the local, without that translating automatically into illiberal politics.

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