The Irksome Politics of Migration

Racist grandfather or distinguished statesman, immigration has always been a particularly contentious matter. Emotive in its character, this peculiar fear of the other has been a pervasive political force for an ungodly amount of time.  

This is wrong. 

I say this not just because I am a tofu-eating, Guardian reading wokerati. I say this from the pragmatic perspective of any economics textbook.  

Britain’s bleak and depressing political culture has a particularly emotive tone as both government and media have red meat served to us by the truckload. This fear of the unknown is truly gothic and, like romanticism sought to reject reason, so too does this particularly vile streak of xenophobia. What we are witnessing is a clash between gritty, ruthless politics and an economy just begging for workers. As the UK continues to drown in rotten populism, economics has been overruled by prejudice. When first hearing Sunak and the media celebrate record employment, I could not help but wonder: when does “record employment” become “labour shortage”? It won’t. It can’t because, once it does, the illusion fades and the M-word comes into question…  

The labour shortage in question first reared its ugly head with Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic swept the globe, EU nationals went running for the hills with the Centre for European Reform calculating a shortfall of 330,000 workers, mostly in less-skilled sectors of the economy. With freedom of movement now a distant thing of the past, our labour markets have lost the flexibility to adapt. 

It is this situation which exposes the ludicrousness of the political status quo. We have a tight reserve pool of workers, made even tighter by the long-term ill now unable to get back to work, and a political climate where the faintest whisper of support for migration is supposedly shunned as loony-lefty nonsense. Such is the infuriating nature of political economy. With hospitality and social care struggling to find workers, Sunak and Starmer, shy away from reality and cosy up in their safe, xenophobic Overton window.  

Perhaps the most peculiar dimension of this window, however, is the electorate. Despite what GB News, the worst of LBC, Braverman and Farage may have us believe, the UK is becoming increasingly liberal. In 2023, a study from The Economist revealed a nation with a startlingly lax attitude towards migrants. Between 2015 and 2023, the proportion of Britons arguing that we need more migrants crept up from 10% to 25% whilst those in favour of fewer migrants fell from 70% to 42%. With this changing political climate, it seems the political status quo is out of sync with the true feelings of the British people.  

This reveals something truly peculiar about modern British political economy: it is wholly disassociated from the electorate. Typically guided by the electorate, party policy shapeshifts into the desires and perspectives of the masses; since Brexit, it has failed to make such a transformation. The Conservatives are traumatised by Brexit; Labour is traumatised by 2019. The outcome: two parties in political stagnation, drifting behind the electorate for fear of them. Fight, flight or freeze. Like that ex you know you should leave alone but keep coming back to, the Conservative Party is bound to Brexit (Britney Spears, anyone?); like a crush after a nasty breakup, the Labour Party is bound to timid spinelessness. The British people care for none of this. 

This leads us to the good news: this economic stupidity is not likely to last. The electorate is growing tired of culture wars and the Conservative Party will eventually grow tired of fighting them. Bruised from the defeat of 2019, a successful Labour will wake up, smell the coffee and grow a backbone. It’s still the economy, stupid – no political party can survive behind the times in the long-run. 

Regardless, witnessing policymakers scratch their heads and wonder how we may solve this shortage is undeniably irksome. Nevertheless, the apathy of the public is loud; votes will make it louder and, inevitably, politicians will be awoken from their xenophobic dreamland.

All articles and opinions posted give the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Leeds Think Tank, the Leeds University Union, or the University of Leeds.