How ‘economic’ is opposition to migration?

By Anna Killick. Anna Killick is a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton.


What does the election tell us about the Ford and Goodwin theory that the political system is changing to ‘a newer set of cleavages that are largely cultural rather than economic’ (Ford and Goodwin 2014:29)? They argued in ‘Revolt on the Right’ that the white working class, characterised as ‘left behind’, are increasingly relying on their authoritarian cultural values, deserting the Labour Party for UKIP. In this post I highlight research which challenges Ford and Goodwin by pointing to the continuing importance of economic issues to working class voters.

Ford and Goodwin argue that the increase in migration from 2004 led to greater opposition to migration. Since both Labour under Blair and the Conservatives under Cameron had moved to the centre to attract cosmopolitan liberal voters, and New Labour was perceived as doing less to help its traditional working class base than it had in the past, the two developments contributed to a rise in support for UKIP. Anti-migration sentiment was also instrumental in the Leave victory in the 2016 referendum. Survey evidence tracking anti-migration beliefs over time and the increased percentages perceiving migration as the most important issue in politics support their case. However, how Ford and Goodwin interpret the nature of the anti-migration beliefs may be over-simplistic.

They claim ‘in Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, the strongest and most inflexible opposition to migration has come from voters who see it as a source or symbol of rapid social change (Ford and Goodwin 2017:5) [my italics]’.  It may be the case that a proportion of anti-migrant people, whether middle or working class, are so xenophobic or racist that their opposition to migration is deep-rooted and social and that such people are the backbone of UKIP support. But does this hold for the majority of people who say they are opposed to migration? Some survey evidence, such as for British Social Attitudes, always showed that opposition to migration was as much economic as it was cultural and, indeed, anti-migration sentiment dropped during the economic good times of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

A neglected area in this debate is how working class people in particular define categories like ‘economic’. My interview-based research into public understanding of the economy, to be published next year, includes questions on what people believe about the economic effects of migration. The in-depth interviews of sixty Southampton residents show that people who oppose migration often do so as much for economic as cultural reasons. When I ask ‘what do you understand about the economic effects of migration?’ interviewees respond with arguments about migration driving wages down, increasing competition for jobs, leading to increased use of zero hours contracts and competing for scarce resources in the health service, housing and benefit sectors. They do not believe the usually nationally based economic research that migration has net benefits for the economy, but it is not clear whether the reason for their rejection of the national research is cultural racism or that the national research flies in the face of their local economic experiences.

Some aspects of understanding of the economic effects of migration can be illustrated by three extracts, all from interviews with working class women in their 50s and 60s. Linda, who lives on a low wage topped by benefits, believes migrants are attractive to employers looking to drive wages down:

it’s just that I think rich people take advantage of the poor people in ways of cheap labour you know… we don’t get the opportunity to have the jobs because we have to work for a proper wage to live and they don’t want anybody to do that, they want cheap [migrant] labour. The rich stay rich, the poor stay poor forever and I think it’s getting worse.

Beverley, aged 65 and having worked all her life as a telephonist and shop assistant, believes migration is exacerbating the acute shortage of social housing in the city : ‘the migration, they’re letting so many people in and there’s no place for us to live at the moment.’ Shelley, aged 50 and on disability benefit, echoed the comments of many people I interviewed that migrants should not be able to claim benefits: ‘there’s so many that come and claim benefits and claim benefits for the kids that are in their country as well. That’s got to do some damage economically really’.

Interview-based research allows us to engage more deeply with how people define problems. Much has been made of survey evidence indicating that in the EU referendum Leave voters tended to see ‘migration’ as the most important issue whilst Remain voters saw the ‘economy’ as most important. But understanding of what ‘economy’ covers is not necessarily shared across all social groups. For instance, middle class interviewees were three times more likely to use the term ‘economy’ in my interviews, indicating that it may be a more negative term for working class interviewees. Some of those who said ‘migration’ was the most important issue may have been using it as a ‘catch all’ phrase that encapsulates their concerns about employment and austerity. Whilst they did support UKIP and voted to Leave the EU, they may be open to a party such as Labour in 2017 which promises to address their economic grievances, even though it is by means other than controlling migration.

So we should be open to the possibility both that anti-migration feeling is more economic than cultural and that ‘economic stewardship’ rather than ‘cultural values’ is still the dominant cleavage in British politics.

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