2012 Round-up: Olympic razzmatazz, census stats, and grim economic realities

So, we've learnt that ethnic diversity has made us a medal-winning nation, and that more of us are migrants than ever before. But did this help to clarify the economic and political tasks which will help us to survive the continuing depression that now stretches out ahead?

It seems unavoidable to begin any piece on immigration during the last 12 months without mentioning 2012 as the year of the London Olympics. The joyful razzmatazz that went on in and around Stratford provided the country with a magic looking glass that functioned on the same principles as the one owned by the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. “Mirror, mirror on the wall: which is the fairest, most decent, diverse, modern and joyfully jazzy country of them all?”  No gold medals for guessing what the answer to that one turned out to be.

In recent times we’ve been provided with other mirrors on the state of the nation which rely less on the principle of magical narcissism. The ONS has begun to turn out statistics on ethnicity based on the findings of the 2011 census which show the degree of change in the ethnic mix of the UK over the last ten years.  Thirteen percent of people living in England and Wales were born abroad – up from nine percent in 2001. Close on five million residents hold a non-UK passport. People born in India, Pakistan and Poland are now the largest of these immigrant communities, with the Poles, growing by a factor of 10, showing the most rapid increase over this period.

Beyond raw numbers

These raw numbers do not, on their own, tell us much about the dynamics of this movement of people.  What social and economic policies have provided the vectors for these migrations? Why did people go to the places they have settled in?  What have been the outcomes of their movement? Have the local impacts of their migration been positive or negative, and what are the criteria for measuring this?   

The answers to these questions don’t come easily to hand and it is likely to fall to local groups, working in collaboration with researchers and stakeholders to plumb these greater depths during the course of 2013.  There are signs that local and regional groups are beginning to plan work along these lines, with Migrant Workers North West setting out a programme for research and discussion about migration in their region which will stretch out across the next twelve months. The West Midlands Strategic Migration Partnership is also planning a major event which will examine A8/A2 migration in their region in the spring of next year.

Apparently paradoxical facts are emerging about the situation of the UK as the country enters the sixth year of economic depression, with employment rates holding up surprising well overall, though with evidence of differences in its impact on specific groups such as women and young black and ethnic minority people.  The general picture seems to be that immigration over the last decade has contributed to this complex picture by supporting higher levels of flexibility in labour markets and allowing firms which would otherwise have been vulnerable to closure to continue trading and plan for a longer-term return to viability.  This has meant that during a period when benefits for unemployed people are being pruned back, the labour market has retained some capacity for making hard times at least survivable, even if average wage levels have been in decline since the summer of 2010.

Building resilience

The long and the short of it is that we will probably have to draw a line under the old argument about whether or not immigration is necessary to support economic growth for the time being.  Immigration is now almost certainly essential to help firms and public services to tread water during a decade when countless others can be expected to slip below the waves. The new mantra of building resilience into the system, with the simple aim of helping us all to get through the harshest of times, is likely to dictate the need for more migration in the years ahead.

The real irony is that this new reality is being learnt fastest by local communities across the country living on the edge of poverty than by the Westminster politicians. The rhetoric there has continued this year to be allegations about ‘mistakes’ being made in the noughties which meant that the government lost control over its borders. The Labour party in opposition, as Ed Miliband showed once again last week, has allowed itself to be painted as people who let things get out of control, with a public stance on the issue which seems to say little more than apologise, apologise, apologise. The use of multiethnic sporting prowess to make the case that immigration can be ‘popular’ is bound to grow thinner as London 2012 slips into the realm of distant memory.  A more substantial argument in support of the movement of people across frontiers is needed ever more urgently as each days passes.

Return to progress

Meanwhile, in the North West, in the West Midlands, in the harder-pressed boroughs of London, and the other regions and countries of the UK, new understandings are emerging of what migration has meant to local communities, beyond the zero sums of who has gained and who has lost out. The pressing question now is what needs to be done to ensure that we survive the times ahead with an infrastructure of jobs and public services still functionally intact.  There will be no room for anti-immigrant sentiment as we square up to this task.  The challenge will be to build on and strengthen the relations which exist between communities to ensure that work continues to be created for all who need it, that blame-mongering between working class people is avoided, and at some point we can begin to plan and work together not just to ensure survival, but a return to the path of progress and social justice at the earliest possible date.  

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A lot of food for thought in this piece Don.

You mention that immigration has facilitated greater labour market flexibility, with some firms avoiding closure thanks to immigration. Might this not suggest that the survival of small businesses sometimes involves immigrants being underpaid and exploited?