Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 16 December 2017

The politicisation of immigration

This is based on the UK experience, but I think some of this will also apply in the US.

Why do right wing politicians push an anti-immigration platform? The obvious answer is that immigration is an important concern to their voters, and that is certainly correct. However I think there is an additional factor, which is illustrated by this interesting graphic from a recent Financial Times piece by Sebastian Payne.




Look at the right hand panel, based I believe on British Election Study data. This is the two dimensional way of representing political views I have discussed before. What we call the vertical axis can vary (culture, identity): I prefer the labels ‘social conservatives’ and ‘social liberals’. *** Conservative voters tend to be right wing and socially conservative. But Labour voters, while clearly left wing, include an important segment that are also socially conservative. As a result, if right wing politicians can make elections about issues that are important to social conservatives (law and order, immigration, race and abortion in the US) they have a chance of picking off Labour voters that would otherwise vote for a left wing candidate.

Immigration is particularly attractive to right wing politicians for a reason I explored in a recent post. There is a common misperception that immigration brings economic bads like lower wages and reduced access to public services. Right wing politicians therefore have a chance of persuading Labour voters to substitute their economic concerns away from supporting a left wing candidate into supporting an anti-immigration candidate on economic grounds.

The standard story perpetuated by the broadcast media in the UK is that heightened concern among voters about immigration over the last decade is a response to high numbers. However it was more than that. The Shifting Ground study has an interesting chart shown below.




The blue line is the importance that voters attach to the issue of immigration. The grey line are the number of migrants coming into the UK. The black line are the number of news stories about immigration in the print media. (See here for the source.) The standard story suggests the blue line (importance) responds, in the first instance with a few years lag, to the grey line (immigration numbers), with the black line (news stories) reflecting people’s concerns with no lag at all. But it is obvious that you can tell a very different story: people’s perceptions about the importance of immigration reflect what they read in the press.

This different story, where the press leads opinion, makers much more sense. Why the long lag between the increase in immigration in the late 90s and public attitudes about the importance of immigration? As is well known, public concern about immigration tends to be greatest in areas where there are least migrants. In a poll commissioned by the Sun newspaper in 2007 only 15% said that migrants are causing problems in their own neighbourhood, while 69% said that migrants were not having a strong local impact, either good or bad. There is a nice story Nick Clegg tells on this:
“Years ago, before I became an MP, I was knocking on doors in Chesterfield, Derbyshire – this was at the height of the controversy about asylum seekers being dispersed around the country when Tony Blair was in power. The tabloid newspapers were going nuts about it every day. I remember speaking to a guy leaning on the fence outside his house and saying: “Any chance you’ll vote for the Liberal Democrats?” And he said: “No way.” And I said: “Why not?” And he said: “Because of all these asylum seekers.” And I knew for a fact that not a single asylum seeker had been dispersed to Chesterfield. So I said to him: “Oh, have you seen these asylum seekers in the supermarket or the GP’s surgery?” And he said something to me that has remained with me ever since. He said: “No, I haven’t seen any of them, but I know they’re everywhere.” You can’t dismiss the fear, but how on earth are you supposed to respond to that?”

Here is a more recent example.

The Shifting Ground report also looked, in 2004, at what best explained whether voters thought high immigration was important as a political issue. The best explanatory variables were readership of the Mail, Express and Sun, in that order. All three were better predictors of concern about immigration than whether people voted Conservative, which reinforces the point that immigration is a way for right wing politicians to gain votes from ‘natural’ Labour voters.

If you think about it, the idea implicit in the standard story that voters were observing greater immigration and as a result expressing concern, which the print media simply expressed, is slightly incredible. It seems unlikely during this period that voters were looking at official data: voters anyway tend to grossly overestimate the number of immigrants. A much more plausible story is that they were reading their papers. It is important to stress that these papers were not ‘brainwashing’ their readers, but instead playing on eternal fears about outsiders, particularly if these outsiders are seen as cheating the system.

Why would the print media start writing more stories about immigration? You could say they are just reflecting the numbers, again with a rather long lag. A more plausible explanation is political. In 2001 William Hague talked about Tony Blair wanting to turn the UK into a ‘foreign land’. In his 2005 General Election campaign, Michael Howard put immigration at the heart of the Conservative Party’s general election campaign. Tim Bale discusses these and later political responses here.

The right wing tabloid press in particular covered immigration in a way designed to generate hostility. As Ian Dunt noted in 2013:
“new research from the Migration Observatory at Oxford University shows just how pervasive and systematic this hate campaign is. After studying 58,000 articles in every national newspaper in Britain – over 43 million words – researchers found the word most closely associated with 'immigrant' was, you guessed it, 'illegal'. … For tabloids, other words closely associated with 'immigrant' were 'coming', 'stop', 'influx', 'wave', 'housing' and 'sham'.”

A recent report from the same source finds ‘mass’ as the most common way of describing immigration. Claims made about immigration in the tabloids are frequently untrue. They are almost always negative, often extremely negative. This is not a coincidence, or as a means of boosting sales: it is a deliberate editorial policy.

In opposition the Conservatives could do little more than ramp up the salience of the issue among their base and among readers of right wing tabloids. Labour on the whole triangulated in public. Gordon Brown’s famous remark after being challenged over the economic impact of immigration in the 2010 election showed both how Labour viewed anti-immigration arguments and also the problems with their triangulation. Once the Conservatives gained power as part of the Coalition in 2010, immigration as a major problem became official.

Furthermore, arguments linking immigration to economic problems that had nothing to do with immigration also became official, as the Conservatives used immigration as a useful scapegoat both for falling real wages and the impact of austerity on access to public services. This in turn fed back into the print media as a whole: whereas in 2006 many articles defending immigration could be found outside the right wing tabloids, these diminished in number by 2013.

If the right wing tabloids created an anti-immigration atmosphere in parts of the UK, after the Conservative’s ‘less than 100,000 target’ for net immigration it became government policy. Yet, as I argued here, it was - like the tabloids - a policy born in deceit. Every time Theresa May tried to suggest significant economic measures to reduce immigration, a combination of George Osborne and Vince Cable knocked it down for the very good reason that it would damage the economy. Her only choice was to create, literally, a hostile environment for immigrants into the UK.

Although formally the policy is only designed for illegal immigrants, it inevitably turns the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the tabloids into official government policy. Landlords are reluctant to let accomodation to EU immigrants in case their papers are not in order. The same applies to healthcare. I wrote about the bureaucratic cruelty shown to foreign students, and most academics will have similar stories from their own experience. Colin Talbot describes the experiences of EU academics after the Brexit vote. The simple cruelty of this policy does not go unnoticed abroad (for example here and here from Heiner Flassbeck and well worth reading), and the contrast with Germany’s policy towards refugees is stark. [1]

Brexit was the apotheosis of this policy towards immigration. Although Remain gained a few liberal Conservatives, they lost more left wing social conservatives, as the left hand side of the first figure shows. The right wing tabloids were of course not innocent bystanders in this, but the key point is that they didn’t need to do anything new except ramp up their anti-immigration stories and make sure they always mentioned the EU. The key point of this post is that what happened in the Brexit vote was simply what right wing politicians and newspapers have been trying to do for nearly 20 years: use immigration as a way of preventing socially conservative left wing voters from going with Labour.

[1] Viewing from abroad you might be forgiven for thinking the British were now an insular, uncaring, rather bigoted nation. Yet when a photograph of the body of a three-year-old refugee washed up on a Turkish beach went viral, the Sun - always quick to see the limits to how far it can distort news - launched an appeal and within two days had raised £350,000 to help other refugees. It was a brief and short-lived moment when natural compassion proved stronger than years of conditioning.

*** Postscript (18/12/17) These are the same terms as John Curtice uses here


33 comments:

  1. I find this whole subject matter very distressing. I want to live in a country that provides a safe haven for asylum seekers in the way that we did for the Ugandan Asians in 1972. I also want families that span nationalities to be able to live together. Globally beneficial exchange of expertise between nations also depends on professionals being free to work in different countries. Most of all, I want all UK residents, whatever their origins, to live valued lives in a country that enables them to make the most of themselves. I feel that that whole ideal is being destroyed by a class war based abuse of immigration by employers to use exploited, low wage migrant workers to avoid the need for investment in training, automation and efficiency and also as a way to cast a proportion of the population as "unemployable" -rather than having to make the best of everyone.
    Simon-Wren-Lewis makes emphatic assertions that large scale net migration does not actually impair employment conditions for any segment of UK residents. The "evidence" provided to back that up seems so flaky in comparison with the emphatic confidence with which it is asserted; it makes me despair at the field of economics.

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    1. 'Emphatic assertions'? As I said in that earlier post "I remain open to seeing contrary evidence". You think that evidence is flaky. Why not engage with some reasons why you think that?

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    2. As an example, at 56minutes in this documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqo-7rtGwOU the employer states that his response to an absence of Eastern European migrants would be to invest in automation. You yourself have noted that a problem with the UK is how we have inadequate investment in automation compared to say South Korea. Developing, installing and maintaining automation creates good jobs. Kalecki's profit equation also implies that investment in automation could also have direct economic benefits over employing low wage workers. Furthermore, a smaller workforce, with specialist training, at the controls of expensive machines have far more bargaining power than a large unskilled workforce doing the same job. I haven't seen any of that adequately accounted for in your accounts of the effects of large scale, net, low skilled, immigration.

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  2. It would be great if you gave us a point by point unpicking of Bob Rowthorn's arguments that counter your view-point on the benefits of large scale net immigration. He has similar academic and left-wing credentials to you, so the debate could then move beyond appeals to intellectual and moral authority.

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    1. Perhaps you can make a clear argument instead of appeals to your own personal aesthetics.

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    2. Empirically, immigration has broadly neutral economic effects on the host country. There's little point 'debating' the effects, as they're almost never rational arguments.

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    3. Anon 11.31, that is very arrogant. Mass immigration can be very beneficial, or destabilisingly harmful. The effects can be uneven and distributive. There are also sociological effects which are difficult to quantify.

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  3. The left is libertarian and the right is authoritarian? Seriously??? Have you not heard of Momentum?

    Here's a schematic intended to demonstrate my personal opinions have some kind of academic authority to them when they are just my personal opinions

    Delusion
    | { Corbynism, Momentum...}
    |
    |
    |
    |
    |
    |
    |
    |
    Objective reality


    This post is just another example of the lamentable tendency of left-wing academics and commentators to recast all complex issues as morality plays with themselves as brave heroes on the side of good versus evil.

    And if you are viewing from abroad then don't believe all the nonsense you read about the UK written by people who lost a vote. Deciding that membership of a Federal Europe is not right for us is not the same as all being racist. The overwhelming majority of the country still welcome individuals from other nations.

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    1. @Dipper - it would help if you actually read the post rather than just go off on one.

      The graphic is real data, so not imaginary, and quite a normal method of analysis. Personally I think it's a bit simplistic - such analyses have a history of being used to promote ideas like the horseshoe theory - that communists are just the same as fascists - which is the kind of trope you're leading towards here (Corbynistas = authoritarianism = Stalinism = mass murder). Rubbish of course.

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    2. I believe that the graphs presented are from surveys of voters. They don't represent the actual parties.

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    3. And yet the post clearly talks about a spectrum on both the right and the left. So I would say that your suggestion that the left is solely composed of Momentum makes you more deluded than anyone else you accuse.

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    4. The left right axis is at right angles to the authoritarian/ libertarian one.

      This would suggest that you can see any relationship which may exist in the data plot.

      The point of the article is that right wing is not perfectly correlated with authoritarian preference.

      Your inability to comprehend a simple point is telling.

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    5. This post above is a reflection of what elsewhere might be called "knee-jerk"--i.e. a response with little of substance or clarity, written to express the author's lack of desire to engage the substance of the argument.

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    6. Where, precisely, does SWL call people racist?

      And if you are reading this as a passerby, be warned: Dipper is, sadly, a familiar troll.

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    7. Excellent demolition of the horseshoe theory and that graphic here: http://fromarsetoelbow.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/on-spectrum.html?m=1

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    8. Anonymous at 18/12/14:33.

      Footnote 1 contains the notion that viewed from abroad we may be "an insular, uncaring, rather bigoted nation" and I was arguing with that point. I think bigoted in the context of foreigners is synonymous with racist.

      Also, your stating I am a troll, hence my views not to be taken seriously, perfectly makes my point about the notion of Remain/left not being libertarian. Freedoms that are subjective on being approved by an authority are not freedoms.

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  4. If immigration is such a good weapon to use against Labour, why don't you want it to stop? Do you think economic benefits of immigration are big enough to yield an even bigger number of votes FOR Labour in the opposite direction?

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    1. Do you really thinking that stopping immigration would neutralise this weapon? I'm old enough to remember politicians on the right calling for repatriation.

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    2. As a paying member of the Labour party I want the party to defend immigrants. Especially the working class immigrants I have worked along side. Even if there were a strategic advantage in mimicing the anti-immigrant right, of which Mainly Macro rightly doubts, Labour should no do it out of principle.

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  5. 'The politics professor Matthew Goodwin ate his own book on live TV. Having predicted that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership would win under 38 per cent of the vote, the University of Kent academic had to eat his words. Literally. On 27 May, he tweeted: "I'm saying this out loud. I do not believe that Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, will poll 38 %. I will happily eat my new Brexit book if they do".'

    (New Statesman 11th June 2017).

    'Suffolk University and USA Today released a poll this week, which found that among people who trust Fox News the most, the president’s approval rating has been sinking. His favorability among Fox devotees in June was 90 percent. In October, it was 74 percent. This week? Fifty-eight percent. If that trend continues, he will be underwater with the Fox audience long before the 2018 midterms.'

    (JONAH GOLDBERG, President Trump Is Losing the Support of Fox Viewers, National Review, December 15, 2017).

    The use of immigration by the Conservative elite is not as easy to control as they would like to believe, shown by Corbyn gaining 30% of Sun readers compared to 25% of Times readers in 2017.


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  6. I apologise if I'm being a bit simplistic here; I'm a physicist not an economist.

    It seems intuitively correct that cutting the UK's workforce by, say, 5% would result in our GDP shrinking. I do not know, by the way, if this would mean that GDP per capita would shrink. i.e. "GDP" divided by "number in workforce".

    It would seem also that the opposite is intuitively true: INCREASING the UK's workforce by 5% would result in an increase in GDP. Having a big GDP seems to be a Good Thing: how many times during the referendum campaign were we would told that the UK had the 5th (or was it the 6th?) biggest economy in the world---I assume that the word "economy" was a synonym for "GDP"---and Brexit would therefore be a walk in the park.

    So why are we making our economy (or our GDP) smaller?

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  7. I fear this is a long orchestrated shift of the Overton window, something which British politics continues to be susceptible to (perhaps we all are). To me there are two paths forward. Firstly, a strong Brexit that means that those who voted for Brexit learn of the immigration deception the hard way; the problem lies in that there's no defence against another scapegoat being created. Secondly, the anti immigration rhetoric is exposed as a set of lies (least not because the government has no intention of reducing immigration), and hopefully the general public recognises that experts are worth listening to. I would prefer the latter, hopefully accompanied by a stronger emphasis on educating society (young and old) on economics.

    I wonder for all the ideals of conservatism whether they believe in the ideals expressed by Kipling in "If". There is hardly a more traditional British poem and yet: "If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;"
    Do we think our government trusts itself? Do we think they make allowances for the doubts of others?

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  8. That graph doesn't include the total number of immigrants. Possibly the news stories and attitudes are more correlated with that total number than with net migration.

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  9. I don't disagree with your interpretation of the role of the press, though I would note that immigration is actually a relatively soft concern that can be outweighed by economic worries, as was the case in the 2008-13 period (the Ipsos-Mori Issue Index shows the correlation between the two). However, I think you're reading too much into the charts published in the FT.

    The biaxial model of politics is ideological. Not only does it sideline objective factors such as class in favour of subjective "personality", but it assumes that economics is a matter of the degree of government control while culture is a matter of the degree of social coercion. In this reading, working class solidarity is always authoritarian and borrowing is always left-wing.

    See through this prism, it is easy to fall into the trap of attributing Remain's defeat to "left wing social conservatives". In fact, given that all votes are of equal weight in a referendum, it would be just as fair to attribute the outcome to the 1/3rd of Lib Dems voters who opted for leave. If leave won because of anti-immigrant sentiment, then it did so because that sentiment is general among Conservative voters, just as the reason that Donald Trump won in the US was because traditional Republican voters voted overwhelmingly for him.

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  10. Weren't the tories doing better when they adopted a more liberal approach under Cameron than under the anti immigrant rhetoric of May?

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  11. I think you have got the causation wrong - again.

    The first thing you need to know is that Murdoch backs a winner. If that turned out to be a Tony Blair or Bob Hawke who favoured high immigration, he would them.

    And this is the point: the newspapers are led by the opinion of their readers. Not the other way around. They want to give them want they want to read. Yes there was a lag between when high numbers of immigrants came into Britain and when it became an issue. But there was also a lag in the press realised picking up on high immigration rates as an issue. Firstly they targeted refugees. But then they realised that this small segment of the immigration intake was not the area of concern. When people felt the high numbers had reached the stage when they cumulative number had irreversibly changed the character of the country, and the population size - both things people did not vote for - and they did not want any more of it - that is when it was an issue - and that fed the press.

    The hostility was basically towards cosmopolitan elites who people thought did not believe that charity started at home. Brexit gave them a voice. I believe this was not necessarily about the EU, which they did not worry about before eastern expansion and high (EU and non-EU) migration.

    NK.

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  12. Just after the referendum, a number of thoughtful analysts made the point that social conservatism was a consistent factor across Brexit voters, in one case at least using the example of the question of capital punishment as an indicator. Since then those analyses seem to have been ignored so its good to see them being looked at again.
    Those of us who are old enough to remember the old unions of the 60/70s will remember that many/most of the leaders and members were deeply socially conservative in their attitudes to say gender, sexuality or immigration. Those attitudes are still there and thats why UKIP had a ready supply of votes which the Tories have then picked up by adopting UKIPs policies.
    Corbyn has to decide whether the party is going to reflect those kinds of attitudes to hang onto or regain those voters. In the process that will alienate the younger voters who have flocked to join Labour. It is just playing the same game as the worst of the Mail, Express, Sun, Telegraph and extreme Brexiters who have exploited fears of 'other' for their own ends, as SW-L describes.
    Alternatively they could stick to what I thought were their more progressive principles and accept that those socially conservative attitudes should slowly fade as a education and death take effect take effect on the demographics.
    If that sounds like wooly metropolitan liberalism - so be it. I thought we'd spent the last 30-40 years fighting against those attitudes, with the Left taking the lead. Speaking as someone brought up in Carlisle...

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  13. This article implies that Labour - largely - were in favour of remaining and the Tories in favour of leaving, and that the reason labour voters were induced into voting leave was the right wing media and their immigration scare stories. However, its fairly widely known that Jeremy Corbyn wants us to leave just as much as the right wingers isn't it? It seems to me (albeit anecdotally rather than with any empirical evidence I'll admit), it tends to be the centrists that want to remain the most rather than the left

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  14. Thank you for the very interesting points in this article. You might be a bit quick to put most of the blame on the media. They have an agenda and push it. But are they facilitators rather than instigators of ill-feeing? Because everyone has a wariness towards strangers, instilled in us from childhood, some concern about immigration will be permanent. Some people don’t even like incomers from other towns. In an interview in the Financial Times Angus Deaton, even after winning the Nobel Prize, felt that people in England regarded him with suspicion - “…the Scots are always outsiders in England. They are always putting you in your place in one way or another.“ How much worse is it when immigrants have different coloured skin, eat different food, speak a foreign language? You referenced the study on Brexit in South Wales showing resentment against people opening Polish food shops in rundown high streets. The EU asked David Cameron to give examples of immigration causing pressure on public services, and he could do nothing other than refer to a single case reported in the press.
    Is the main determinant of public concern about immigration the overall economic climate? If the economy is doing well, then people are less bothered about immigration because everyone is gaining. Incomers to a boomtown are associated with something positive.
    So the financial crisis was very bad. People get worried about wages being undercut. Or a greater risk of losing their jobs. The same people often say it’s unskilled foreigners they want to keep out. But why are people threatened by an unskilled person who can’t even speak the language ? People who say ‘unscrupulous employers break the rules’ are not the ones calling for more resources for industrial inspections.
    Austerity made this much worse. Because once people accept the story that ‘there’s no money left’, then they start to look sideways and resent the foreign voice in the doctors surgery, the extra children in the classroom, the rising rents. They will listen to the story about the refugee who got free health care, but not about the hundred thousand immigrants keeping health and care services from collapse.
    These feelings are understandable and are to some extent quite natural. The press makes it easier to say things that many decent people keep unsaid. But the feelings are still there whatever the press says. It might be worthwhile looking a bit deeper at the role of our political leaders and our system of government.
    Austerity was chosen by our leaders with almost no national debate. There is similarly no debate among political leaders about the issues around immigration. Why do so few of them present any arguments at all ? Why do so few try to address underlying concerns about public services, pay, housing or jobs ?
    The problem goes wider. As Anthony King and Ivor Crewe stress in ‘The blunders of our governments’ the weakness of Parliament has a lot to answer for. MPs are whipped rather than scrutinise. There is no attempt to build a consensus on issues like health and social care, investing in areas of industrial decline, housing or immigration. They hint at the role of the electoral system in this - it may not be an accident that countries where extremes have come near or gained power are ones with first past the post systems - USA, UK, France. And yet Parliamentary committees have access to unparalleled expertise on immigration. Expert knowledge of the issues behind Brexit is only now coming to light in parliament through evidence to committees. But the political game will smother it.
    There is another reason why this debate is difficult - just in the same way as those arguing against austerity have found it difficult to counter the ‘we’ve maxed out the national credit card’ story. Or explain the zero lower bound, or the lump of labour fallacy. The stories just aren’t good enough to reply to the facile argument in the workplace or the pub. Even if they got a fair hearing in the press, no-one would understand. It doesn’t need to be like that.

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  15. I think you have to careful of big theoretical arguments about the benefits of large scale immigration. For example America was built on immigration (although the native Indians might not have been sure about whether it was such a great thing). It is also pretty clear that the benefits of recent large scale immigration (in terms of producing a large per capita income increase) into Britain have not been that enormous.

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  16. The 'freedom' axis (liberty vs. authority) seems to be the wrong way round.

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  17. If anyone is sickened by the xenophobia sold by certain tabloids, the Stop Funding Hate campaign is worth a look. Put pressure on advertisers, go after the revenue stream!

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  18. "As is well known, public concern about immigration tends to be greatest in areas where there are least migrants. "

    It is impossible to make that generalisation. This is where you need anthropologists on the ground to really see what is happening. For a start in many areas of high immigration (east Anglia, parts of the midlands) there is strong anti-immigration sentiment. In Essex and Kent, there are relatively few immigrants, but much of this population consists of people that were originally from Greater London. Many of these people were whose parents who lived in London in social housing. They are now on benefits or low wage incomes in such areas. In London, it is not surprising that the native population is largely pro-immigration. Over half of Londoners are not from London (and even more do not have parents from there). 'Cockneys' have largely disappeared from much of the Greater London area. What are left, besides foreigners, are relatively affluent people. Lower income Londoners are now a small enough group that have little influence.

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