The inconvenient truth behind the UK's debate on immigration

The inconvenient truth behind the UK's debate on immigration
Comment: Immigration is a hot topic in UK politics, exploited by the right-wing fringe to attract popular support.
6 min read
05 May, 2015
Ukip occupied the political space abandoned by the main parties [Carl Court]

Britain is a country obsessed by the issue of immigration.

According to the conservative-leaning national media, inward migration is officially the root of many of the country's social and economic problems: strained public services, chronic housing shortages, depressed wages, welfare abuse, communal tension and organised crime.

All these problems are attributed those who decide to come to British shores.

Politicians from mainstream parties stumble over one another in an immigration "arms race", promising to be the "toughest", "firmest" and "hardest" on an issue which has come to dominate much of British political discourse.

The real question is: how did it get to this stage? There is one school of thought in the social sciences which provides a compelling explanation for this development.

Richard Katz and Mark Blyth's "cartel-party thesis" offers considerable insight in helping to understand British politics.


The thesis holds that mainstream parties will effectively "collude" and coalesce around specific policy approaches to reduce risk and establish "collective dominance" in the political market - staving off the threat of "fringe outsiders" in the process.

The UK Independence Party... has successfully fashioned a 'populist, anti-establishment' narrative.

The cartel party thesis, however, asserts that the establishment of an "inter-party cartel" can facilitate the rising popularity of what can be identified as a populist, anti-cartel rhetoric.

This specific form of political rhetoric in British politics is firmly represented in the form of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), which has successfully fashioned a "populist, anti-establishment" narrative that criticises the "out-of-touch, privileged, metropolitan" Westminster political elite for making consequential decisions about European integration without the democratic consent of the British people.

Furthermore, the risk-averse mainstream political elite's adoption of an "accountability-shedding mechanism", involving the deployment of a "blame Brussels" strategy, seems to have backfired - as it has played a role in fuelling eurosceptic attitudes in Britain.

This has provided Ukip with a fertile environment to make electoral inroads with its populist message, based on a claim of defending national sovereignty and "reclaiming our borders".

In addition, the party's vehement rejection of the notion that large-scale immigration is simply the reality of globalisation, along with its deliberate exploitation of immigration-related anxieties within British society, fits well with the proposition of the cartel party thesis - ie: that anti-cartel parties may take advantage of issues strategically avoided by cartel parties, who collectively hold electoral fears over appearing to be demagogues.

What the mainstream parties, namely the Labour Party, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, did before the rise of Ukip was largely to take "immigration" off the table as an issue for discussion.

This resulted in virtually no discussion about the benefit of immigration, the immense contribution of migrants who work tirelessly in our much-loved National Health Service, the foreigners who provide essential support for our social and mental healthcare, the foreigners across our country who, according to a recent UCL study measuring tax contributions and welfare dependency from 2000-2011, made a "remarkably strong" contribution to our public finances.

With Ukip shattering the "alliance of silence" on immigration, successfully occupying much of the territory the main parties had vacated, it has revelled in its aggressive "agenda-setting" role.

In the immigration section of its manifesto for the upcoming election, Ukip openly blames immigrants for driving down wages, job losses suffered by native workers, rising fertility rates, the inadequate rate of house-building, longer waiting lists for the National Health Service and oversized classes in schools.

The document mentions a clampdown on "health and welfare tourism" - depicting immigrants as resource-sucking leeches who make the decision to come to the UK to simply drain our country of healthcare provision and welfare assistance.

Looking closer to home

What is glaringly omitted from Ukip's manifesto is the fact that the problems they identify are primarily due to domestic factors.

For the low wages in our Anglo-Saxon capitalist economy, one has to look no further than the unscrupulous employers who decide not to pay the minimum wage and maximise their profits.

What is required is stronger enforcement of the national minimum wage and more severe penalties for employers found guilty of not paying it. Perhaps politicians should entertain the idea of introducing a living wage.

British workers being out-competed by migrant workers? This simply cannot be down to wages. Skills, qualifications, and general professionalism also play their part in the process.

The acquisition of skills, greater uptake of qualifications, and comprehensive re-training schemes are all needed to increase the employability of British workers as a whole in a globalised market economy.

A housing shortage? This country's record on house-building has been woeful for decades. On top of that, Margaret Thatcher's spectacularly ill-judged "right to buy" policy sold off a significant chunk out of the social housing stock - with replacement builds falling terribly short of what was required.

What is clear is that British politics has shifted to the right on immigration.

The "New" Labour government of was so preoccupied with destroying homes in Iraq and Afghanistan, it failed to address social housing shortages in its own country.

But under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, peacetime house-building rates plummeted to their lowest point since the 1920s.

What about longer waiting lists in the NHS? Well, despite the best efforts of hard-working and immensely gifted migrant doctors, nurses, clinicians, surgeons, the Coalition's utterly needless and thoroughly chaotic top-down reorganisation of the NHS was not only a complete waste of £3 billion ($4.6bn), but created much confusion and disorder within the health service.

This has inevitably led to the lengthening of patient waiting lists.

How about larger class sizes? Underinvestment and the shifting of resources to a select number of privately-run "free" schools and academies with relatively small class sizes has, unsurprisingly, meant the creation of larger class sizes in urban areas suffering from socioeconomic deprivation - once again, the responsibility for this lies with the Coalition government.

Health tourism is arguably one of the greatest myths that dominates the national discourse regarding the NHS.

Embracing Ukip-style rhetoric, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt remarked in 2013 that foreign patients were "putting real pressure on the front line".

In fact, the vast majority of migrants are young, healthy and economically active.

What is placing "real pressure" on the NHS is an ever-ageing national population - with healthcare (like welfare) being largely devoted to looking after elderly "natives" who are no longer direct economic contributors.

This is not a problem of immigration - it is a problem of demographic reality. The aforementioned UCL study showed that from 2000-2011, European migrants paid out more in taxes, received less in benefits and were less likely to live in social housing in comparison with UK-born individuals.

What is clear is that British politics has shifted to the right on immigration - with policy outputs from mainstream parties being influenced by the growth of Ukip and its success in staking out territory left vacant by the other major parties.

Now, parties who wish to speak about glaring internal inefficiencies and champion the case for immigration are unlikely to find such an argument electorally advantageous.

It is easier to scapegoat migrants who may not have the right to vote than to criticise those who have the ability to influence electoral outcomes.

The past five years have seen the rapid rise of a party that thrives on the fears and anxieties of the dispossessed, who wrongfully blame immigrants for all their troubles.

At a time when we need our political leaders to lead and navigate, it seems they have taken the less courageous route - and chosen to be swept along with the tide.

Rakib Ehsan is a doctoral researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, specialising in voting behaviour and ethnic minority political engagement.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.