While the question of immigration is never far from public debate, recent weeks have seen the topic catapulted into the media once again by a series of apparent government blunders. This latest flurry of interest was sparked last month, when work and pensions secretary Peter Hain had to apologise for releasing figures that significantly underestimated the number of foreign workers in the UK. Such a miscalculation, which on paper may have been a fairly mundane error, not only has far reaching consequences in and of itself, but is symptomatic of a far deeper problem.
Globalisation – commonly associated with opening markets and rapid global transmission of money, goods, and information – has also given rise to an increased mobility among people who are able to seek better opportunities, more interesting ventures, and safer lives elsewhere. Human migration has become a defining feature of the modern era. The UN estimates that 191 million people are not currently living in their country of birth. The fudged statistics that embarrassed the DWP last month were not the outcome of a malicious government plot to deceive the public, but rather the result of an immigration bureaucracy that is ill-equipped to keep track of such mobile populations.
Regardless of increasing mobility, compiling accurate demographic statistics is a daunting task. Estimations and projections are a given, with figures open to wide margins of error. The controversial statistics on foreign-born workers, derived from the Labour Force Survey, are a pointed example. This particular data collection method is comparatively frequent and comprehensive, carried out quarterly on all private households in the UK, and yet the figures are still subject to error, inaccurate interpretation, and confusion.
Driving the point home, the statistical miscalculation most frequently peddled by the opposition and the media is the government’s original estimate that there would be a maximum of 13,000 migrants from new accession countries. Reportedly, the current figures stand closer to over 500,000. Such an embarrassingly large discrepancy can partly be blamed on the impossible clairvoyant task involved, and partly on the fact that such forecasts were, according to Mervyn Stone of University College London, “not based on any convincing modelling of historical data series [but] essentially matters of lay judgement that can be made without appeal to mathematical or econometric expertise”.
Claiming, therefore, to have the “facts” on immigration, when at best these are gross estimations, is to tread a dangerous path. For good reason, the immigration debate in the UK relies fairly heavily on these “facts”. Primarily, being able to provide accurate figures and statistics is crucial for governments to demonstrate their competence and reassure the general public. Secondly, without the means to keep track of rapid population shifts and the transformations of local needs, centrally allocated public service funding will continue to be based on hugely unrepresentative data, leaving local authorities squeezed for necessary resources.
The combination of poorly funded and overstretched public services and large discrepancies in official immigration figures not only creates real tensions on the ground – where rising populations in certain communities, often the poorest and most deprived, are forced to compete for inadequate resources – but allows the blame for such tensions to be placed firmly at the door of “uncontrolled” immigration and “failed” government policies.
Thanks to the general impression of disarray, public faith in the current immigration system is easily eroded. A poll carried out the week following the “foreign workers” debacle revealed that 72% of respondents thought the government was handling immigration “very poorly”.
Such low public opinion is easily exploited. Voices from the right do not have to go as far as suggesting that London will end up “having third world-style shanty towns springing up in the shadows of the City’s gleaming skyscrapers”, as the Sun’s political editor George Pascoe-Watson reported on 24 October 2007, in order to play on public fears of inaccurate immigration figures and mismanagement of population growth. David Cameron, in a recent speech that was praised for apparently attempting to “deracialise” the debate, glibly blamed a long shopping list of social ailments on increasing immigration, the solution to which would be, in his view, a cap on numbers.
This is not the answer. Migration and mobility will continue to characterise the modern world, thus flexibility and openness will be necessary components of modern competitive societies. A cap on numbers is no more feasible than it is desirable. However, if Labour is to avoid ceding such electorally fertile ground to those with this kind of backward agenda, then they must be sure to have a strong case for progressivism. A keystone of which has to be a solid empirical foundation.
First, systems for properly counting migration and population levels need to be better established both at national level, and, crucially, at local level. Better use of local authority and public service data can play a big role, and has been suggested in the government’s 2005 Improving Migration and Population Statistics project. The more sources such information is collected from – and the more frequently – the more accurately the government will be able to account for demographic trends and allocate necessary funds. Where data remains estimation or prediction, it must be clearly labelled as just that, underpinned by evidence of relative accuracy.
Second, objective, in-depth, long-term research into the impact of labour migration on all sectors of the society and economy must be undertaken. Such analysis is crucial for identifying the pressure points created by rapid population change, but also for understanding the positive opportunities presented. As a result, responsive policies can more easily mitigate the challenges of immigration as well as better distribute the gains. The Migration Impacts Forum created earlier this year as part of the Border and Immigration Agency is on the right path, but it must go further, establish far more concrete and nuanced evidence, seek cross-national comparisons, not be shy of ongoing analysis, and even establish its independence in order to attest the objectivity of its findings. Improving on the existing evidence is the aim of Policy Network’s upcoming labour migration project, which will seek to disentangle the real impact of economic migration in European countries from public perceptions and myths.
Labour must regain the initiative not by announcing ambitious (and implausible) new ways to restrict numbers, but by making sure they are in firm control of the debate. Objective, comprehensive research into the impact of labour migration, and systems to properly account for flexible and rapidly changing local demographics, will be necessary tools if Labour is to give Britain ownership of a confident progressive discourse on immigration, and counter the ever-present political threat of anti-immigration populism.