George Bathurst is a Conservative councillor for Windsor, Lead Member for Policy & Performance at RBWM and one of the organisers of the 2nd Conservative Renewal Conference. Tickets are on sale at www.conservativerenewal.org. You can follow George on Twitter here, and the Conference itself here.
Coming back yesterday from learning about how social housing provider Radian deals with calls from residents, the conversation with the taxi driver inevitably led to the availability of housing. He had come to the UK as a child when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. He lived with his parents in Slough because he could not afford his own house and complained bitterly about “Eastern Europeans who have only been here a few years taking all the houses”.
This vignette shows that no matter how often the Left try to paint anybody who talks about immigration as racist, it is not just white little-Englanders who are worried. It also shows that the main problem with immigration is not a dislike of foreigners but the practical problems of accommodating them.
As Tony Blair never tired of saying, there are significant benefits to immigration, the greatest being their contribution to GDP growth, the elixir of all modern politicians and the only way out of our debt trap. GDP is calculated as total domestic spending; this includes the spending of borrowed money. Thus both an immigrant sustaining themselves and one on benefits paid for by sovereign debt both increase the country’s GDP.
There are many other benefits of immigration, from the no-nonsense work ethic of individuals who have traversed the globe in search of a better life, to the cultural diversity they bring. Immigration also allows employers, from City banks to Thames Valley IT companies, to attract the best global talent.
At another level, many restaurants, for example, uses a continuous stream of new immigrants to keep prices down. The staff come over on student visas and are happy to work for free in return for accommodation and the opportunity to stay for longer when their visa expires. The universities they enrol at benefit too, receiving government funding as well as charging these ‘students’ very high fees.
Benefits, or net benefits?
What its proponents have never really claimed is that there are net benefits to immigration (at least beyond the Marxist belief that it was the best way to destroy capitalism). Blair’s mantra, that there are benefits to immigration is actually a statement of the obvious. Whether there are net benefits is moot: it is even more debatable that uncontrolled immigration, as pioneered by Labour, which favoured illegal migration and penalised those who applied honestly, is a good thing.
Matters are not helped by dubious statistics, and not merely those that seek to play down the true numbers of people moving. It is an assumption of modern political debate that GDP growth is good. However, as GDP includes government borrowing there is an obvious cheat for making it look they are doing a good job whilst actually making us all poorer. Immigration provides a similar cheat: you get an immediate benefit but a long-term cost. Thus, whilst GDP has been growing with immigration as with borrowing, GVA (gross value added) per capita, which is arguably a better measure of our wealth, has been falling.
This cheat has alas seduced governments of all colours since the war (with the honourable exception of Mrs Thatcher’s) but none more-so than Tony Blair’s post the dot-com crash and Brown’s post the Credit Crunch.
Long-term benefits and short-term costs
Tackling immigration, therefore, requires not just action at a practical level aimed at reducing numbers. This in fact is one of the Coalition’s greatest achievements, under the sure-footed leadership of Theresa May. It also requires being honest about the cost (at least in the short-term) of reducing immigration. Only in this way is it possible to break out of the corral of New Labour’s rhetoric, to have a balanced argument and allow the people make a genuine democratic choice (and one which they have been consistently denied).
Put like this, the argument over immigration has some similarity to the late Robin Cook’s ‘ethical foreign policy’. An ethical foreign policy is what all reasonable people should want and I doubt there are many Conservatives who think it is a good idea to be selling arms to countries we may well be going to war with at some point within the next fifty years or other countries with repressive regimes hostile to British traditions of Common Law and freedom. So why, despite cross-party support, is our foreign policy as unethical today as it was in the depths of the Cold War? The reason is that Cook set out the vision but failed to be honest about the price: if we don’t sell jets to the Saudis we will have to pay the R&D costs ourselves.
Similarly, with immigration, if we want to achieve anything more than a rhetorical victory we need to be honest about the whole picture and not just focus on border controls, sticking our finger in the dyke.
If we stop relying on immigrants to pick our vegetables we will have to bear the price of picking them ourselves and engaging with the difficult issue of unemployed people who choose not to do such work at present. This raises class issues too, as many of the benefits of immigration are to the already rich whilst the costs are borne by the poorest in society. These and many other challenges will have to be faced if we are to arrive at a new and sustainable consensus for the correct level of immigration.
A roof over our heads
The biggest linked issue of all is housing. We have a housing crisis with many young people unable to afford their own homes. However, it could equally be argued that what we really have is a population crisis. If the birth rate and house sharing of people born here is lower than historical norms then the housing crisis is a direct result of immigration only. Again, however, although house building is predicated on ever-increasing immigration it is nonetheless an important part of our economy. If we are to rebalance our economy and investment towards more sustainable activity, such as electronics and IT, focussing on genuine growth rather than massaging the GDP statistics, we must be honest about both the cost and the trial ahead: that a great many powerful vested interests benefit from unlimited immigration, as voiced by the CBI last week.
Despite being of such huge concern to ordinary voters, immigration and its knock-on effects remain resolutely undebated in Westminster, the Left having closed the issue down between charges of racism and Blair’s blithe statement of the obvious. This is why we are discussing it at the Conservative Renewal Conference in Windsor on 14 September. The idea is that by once again talking about the issues that are of concern to voters we can restore people’s faith in democracy and win a Conservative majority.