I have written several times on this blog about immigration, because it is so intimately linked to organizational life in many countries. In the UK, almost all workplaces now contain a wide mix of nationalities, especially from the rest of the EU. But of course immigration is deeply unpopular, and has fed the growth in support for UKIP in the UK, and many other anti-immigration parties across Europe.
This puts mainstream politicians in a very difficult situation in a democracy. Some voters are anti-immigration for reasons that are out and out racist, but not all anti-immigration sentiment is racist (although it does not follow, as some claim, that none of it is). Instead, it arises from concerns about jobs and wages, and about space and public services. Yet as regards EU migration, which is what animates current debate in the UK, the number of immigrants into the UK is about the same as that out of the UK – around 2 million people. So in the absence of free movement within the EU, the UK population would be about the same, meaning no difference in terms of space. And in terms of public services, it probably reduces usage because immigrants to the UK tend to be healthy, working-age people whilst many emigrants from the UK are elderly retirees.
So far as jobs and wages are concerned, the effect of immigration is limited. There is not a fixed pool of jobs in an economy (this is the ‘lump of labour fallacy’) and, empirically, the effect on wages is negligible, and such effect as there is mainly attributable to illegal employment practices. Moreover, the idea that immigrants claim benefits is a myth: immigrants overall pay more in than they take out of the benefits system. So too is the idea of ‘health tourism’ – that immigrants come to the UK in order to access free medical treatment. It’s notable that the fears and myths about immigration are always most strongly held in places where immigration is low. Thus the UKIP vote is much lower in, for example, London, than it is in rural parts of Yorkshire
But it is almost impossible for politicians to counter these various fallacies and myths, even when they know that that is what they are. At the same time, any well-informed politician will know that economies such as the UK’s need more, not less, immigration because of their ageing demographic. The consequences of that demographic are accepted by people when it comes to policy on health or on pensions, yet not when it comes to immigration and employment. An anti-immigration policy would spell disaster for the UK and many other old industrial democracies.
So no responsible politician could advocate draconian limits to immigration; yet no sensible politician can ignore the extent of anti-immigration sentiment amongst voters. It is this disjuncture which feeds the populism of UKIP and similar parties. Populism may be popular, but it entails pandering to people by giving superficially appealing and easy solutions which are in fact detrimental to those same people.