Migrants: Welcome and fear

Recently I was out with some Bishop’s Stortford Liberal Democrats, gathering signatures on a petition for citizens of other EU nations currently in the UK to be allowed to remain in the UK. In a few hours we gathered just over 250 signatures on a not-that-busy street. Some were delighted to sign. Some were relieved that we were not taking the opposite position. Some said their businesses would struggle without people from other parts of the EU.

More worrying was the small minority who disagreed, loudly wanting foreigners to “go home”. A prize for confusion goes to the person who said that, and then added that she wanted to retire to France.

Then came an apparently-xenophobic attack on two Poles in Harlow and Theresa May’s assertion that curbing immigration will take priority over access to the single market in Brexit talks. She must know this is unrealistic: freedom of movement is one of the pillars of the single market and Switzerland’s access to EU programmes was curtailed after they sought to restrict migration.

The sense of farce is heightened by a survey from British Future saying that only a third of people think the government will meet its immigration targets over the next five years and a claim from Boris Johnson that people didn’t vote Leave because of immigration.

Economic reality is that migration addresses skill shortages and builds connection that stabilises peace. In taking two million Syrian refugees, Angela Merkel was shrewdly addressing the problem, which we share, of an ageing population. Immigrants pay taxes and boost economic activity, creating jobs as well as taking them.

Stoking people’s fears makes it harder to name and address our real problems.

I had a chilling illustration canvassing in the General Election campaign when someone told me they were worried about the effects of austerity on their friends and family. Without pausing for breath, they blamed immigrants, so were going to vote for the Conservatives because they are tough on immigration, overlooking the fact that this meant they were voting for the party ideologically-committed to the austerity that was hurting them. The Tories and brilliantly exported the blame for the effects of their policies onto immigrants. This was in a constituency where 95% of the population are white British, so it’s hard to see that there were enough immigrants to have the effect attributed to them.

Blaming immigrants has become a way to duck responsibility for under-investment in the NHS, failure to build housing and for the effects of austerity. It’s grossly irresponsible, both for future relations with our European neighbours, and for the fabric of British society. It’s not worked in the past, and there is no reason to believe it will work now.

The people happy to sign a petition to help protect EU nationals working in the UK point in an open and positive direction. It might not be a coincidence that these people reacted well when I said I would be the Liberal Democrat candidate if there is a snap election, and standing on a pro-EU ticket.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • So what are the LibDems, whether partners in the ALDE doing to protect UK citizens living in other Eu countries?

    Remember the UK government has already made statements to the effect that the continued status of EU citizens living in the UK is wholly dependent upon the negotiating stance of the EU with respect to UK citizens living in the EU…

  • Yellow Submarine 11th Sep '16 - 11:25am

    The article confusing access to and membership of the Single Market. The later requires accepting free movement the later doesn’t automatically. It depends on how much access is required.

  • British values are alive and well in… Norway!

  • Threaded through most of these types of article, is the constant unwarranted barrage of abuse against voters. Voters who have real concerns which mainstream parties have blatantly ignored for 25 or so years.
    1.Can you give us examples of where the ‘Gerald Ratner’ method of managing success has ever worked in politics or business.?
    2. Can you outline some actual, detailed Lib Dem policy measures, specifically designed to deal with those very real voter concerns, instead of these divisive snooty superior put downs,?

  • Sunder Katwala 11th Sep '16 - 1:35pm

    It is good to hear about your petition.

    The same British Future survey that you quote found 84% support for EU nationals having the right to settle. We should be concerned that a minority as big as 16% don’t support this, as reflected in the xenophobic comments you heard, but it is very clear from our research that more than 3/4 of the voters on both sides of the referendum agree on protecting the rights of EU nationals who have come to live in Britain, which should help us to be clear this is their home and they remain welcome Herr.

  • Sue Sutherland 11th Sep '16 - 2:33pm

    Mark I agree with much of your analysis but I have noticed that there are quite a few sweeping statements from the Remain side about the Brexit vote, creeping into discussions. The first is that only London voted Remain, the second that the North voted to leave and the third that all Leave voters are anti immigrant. In fact most other major cities voted Remain including in the North and for Leave voters “taking back control” was more important than migration. The EU is not a faultless organisation and it is obvious that even some Lib Dem supporters felt the disadvantages outweighed the gains from membership.
    The problem with sweeping statements is that they can lead to on going prejudice or self satisfaction. I think that painting the huge Leave vote as anti migrant is actually providing succour for the small minority that are racist. They can now believe that millions of people share their views so it’s given them the confidence to say and do things they were previously afraid to do, at least in public.
    I believe that in areas of deprivation, where a high number of immigrant casual labourers have put added stress on failing local services we should provide the cash needed to improve those services and that migration to these areas should even be managed so that large numbers of people don’t arrive in a short space of time.
    However, we also need to have economic and social security policies which provide an antidote to the results of Thatcherite economics and austerity, so that life is seen to improve in spite of migration. Of course we should speak out against racism and xenophobia and support those who are the victims of such behaviour, as well as punishing the perpetrators, but don’t let’s give them the false idea that millions of people agree with them.

  • Sadly this article, like almost all LDV articles on the same topic, falls in to the usual trap of conflating opposition to uncontrolled immigration with opposition to immigration.

    If people are fed up because they suddenly find it harder to see their GP due, at least in part, to a sudden large influx of immigrants, then some of them may well dislike immigrants in general, but some of them may well have no personal animosity to immigrants whatsoever: they may just feel that immigration needs to be much better managed.

  • @Stuart: People can’t get appointments with GPs not because of migration but because the NHS is underfunded. It’s government’s fault, not immigrants, who are a net gain. The problem is that we have a media and political culture which allows the blame to be shifted onto innocent people and, frankly, I’ve had more than enough of that.

  • Stevan Rose 11th Sep '16 - 5:47pm

    “More worrying was the small minority who disagreed, loudly wanting foreigners to “go home”.”

    Did you ask why? My octogenarian parents who live in Bromley voted Leave because they have to wait up to 2 weeks to see a GP in a big group practice and the cause is a significant population increase in their area as a result of EU migration. I don’t have any answers for them and they both voted Lib Dem in May. They perceive that this party cares more about the EU and migrants and refugees than it does about our own citizens. So do all their mates at their CIU club.

    I rang them to put the point about ducking of responsibility for NHS underinvestment, housing, transport, etc. They pointed out that the increased demand for services has arisen because people keep coming relentlessly and as quickly as you can increase capacity it is filled again. They don’t want remaining green land around them concreted over for housing making it even more difficult to get a GP appointment. They also pointed out that the Lib Dems were in power while this problem got worse and worse. Actually all they really want is a brake and a break so things have a chance to catch up and then some stability.

    I can see where they’re coming from and I can see a need for some compromises. They are not a small minority. Would they vote Lib Dem again? Not as it stands. They wondered why Lib Dems were marching to stay in the EU, when they as Lib Dem voters had said Leave. They wondered why they should vote for a party that seems to have abandoned their interests. Given all I see currently is a party on a single issue obsession there’s not a lot I can say to that.

  • “@Stuart: People can’t get appointments with GPs not because of migration but because the NHS is underfunded.”

    Isn’t the NHS being funded to the level their Chief Executive has asked for?

  • Stevan Rose 11th Sep '16 - 6:08pm

    Caron: the opinion of my elderly parents and many other voters is that the reason why they cannot get GP appointments is significant population change, primarily an influx of migrants. They say it is the Government’s fault for allowing it, not the migrants themselves. I don’t see it, I have no problem getting an appointment but then I live 250 miles away in a town where few EU migrants have wanted to come. Maybe in Scotland you have different factors in play. You can dismiss them or address their concerns; sounds like you’re dismissing them and that’s why they are unlikely to vote for this party ever again. They’re not stupid media influenced people by the way and both have held elected offices in the past (on opposing sides, interesting early life).

  • “People can’t get appointments with GPs not because of migration but because the NHS is underfunded.”

    And the Lib Dem policy to solve that NHS underfunding is,…. ???.

  • The NHS won’t survive Brexit.

  • Mr Argent seems to be saying everyone in the world that wants to can come to live in the UK – but never quite says it.

  • The reality is that virtually every single survey of public opinion concludes that 70+% of them want lower immigration. The question people were answering was not about further immigration. It was about existing EU citizens currently residing in the UK. People, not being heartless monsters mostly said they are welcome to remain. This is not an endorsement of continued high levels of immigration, nor does the fact that immigration was not the main reason for voting Leave mean that it is not an issue. In reality if major surveys on public attitudes are to be believed and a figure between 70-77% of the public wants lower levels of immigration, then it suggest that this includes nearly half of the Remain vote as well.

  • A Social Liberal 12th Sep '16 - 12:03am


    Your parents, whilst perfectly entitled to hold the view they do, nontheless hold one that is not valid. The reason GPs are losing their grip is not to do with immigrants taking up all their time but because there is a dearth of new GPs coming to serve the community. Surgeries are finding it impossible to recruit with 9%

  • A Social Liberal 12th Sep '16 - 12:13am

    Damn, hit the ‘Post’ button by mistake.

    To continue

    Surgeries are finding it impossible to recruit GP’s, with 9% of positions unfilled nationally and nearly a third of of training places not being taken up. The NHS is being propped up by immigration, not used up by immigrants. It is a fact that immigrants (being generally young and healthy) use the NHS much less than the indigenous population. It is unfortunately a fact that peoples concerns are being exploited by the propagation of bare faced lies by UKIP and other extremist organisations.

  • It’s quite clear that migration is the `m word` for the Lib Dems who seem in a rut psychologically over the issue. No party can prosper without a coherent policy on this issue as part of its overall economic policy.

    At the moment the LIb Dems are being perceived as myopic on the subject.

    The EU way of doing things is to have unlimited migration from the EU. If you agree with this policy then you have to square it with non-EU families (maybe 2nd generation etc) what the impact is on them. You will also need to explain to those in hard-pressed communities what impact this is on them as well. Every policy creates more questions. If the answer is to keep the status quo the question will be `what is your health policy then?`

    Of course you can face your fears and prejudices listen to the public and come to a realistic logical and coherent policy on the economy and migration.

    Here’s an idea – since the Scots are so keen on free movement we could do a deal with the EU and allow free movement of Labour to Scotland only – England and Wales and NI could have a free stamp on the passport say for 3 weeks.

  • J Dunn

    “1. Can you give us examples of where the ‘Gerald Ratner’ method of managing success has ever worked in politics or business?”

    Excellently put. The approach of too many on the remain side prior to the referendum (for decades) was to attack rather than understand and engage, I believe in large part losing the referendum. Now the response to this failure has been to double down, I can’t see how anyone expects this to be a good response.

  • Caron

    “People can’t get appointments with GPs not because of migration but because the NHS is underfunded”

    GPs appointments were easier to get when the NHS had less money in both real and relative terms. That doesn’t mean that immigrants are to blame (they aren’t in the vast majority of areas), but to make an argument that doesn’t stack up isn’t going to address the concerns of those who think they are.

    The problems of the NHS are varied, solutions will be too. It doesn’t persuade those who have the wrong impression to use arguments that are also based upon different wrong impressions.

  • @ Psi On the subject of getting GP appointments :

    What you forget to mention is that Incoming migrants were more likely to be single and between 15 and 44 years of age, and hence (compared to the rest of the population) statistically less likely to call upon NHS services, indeed, many were actually working in the NHS at all levels. (stats produced by The Migration at the University of Oxford).

  • David Evershed 12th Sep '16 - 11:36am

    A reason for the difficulty in getting doctor appointments in our area is that as male doctors have retired they have been replaced by female doctors.

    Many of the female doctors only want to work part time and many do not want to be partners in the GP practice and the commitment which goes with partnership.

  • People are getting bogged down in an argument about the effects of immigration on the NHS. The reality is people are sort of tribal. The largest tribes simply do not want mass immigration on the current scale. It is causing political and social unrest across the western world. It would be better for a progressive future if this is taken on board and sensible controls are put in place. Otherwise, what will happen is that the Right-wing movements will continue to strengthen there electoral position.
    Populism is a reaction to political doctrines that are not appealing to or have become too disconnected from the broad wishes of the electorate. On the other hand being a pro-immigration party may have an advantage as niche position.

  • David Raw

    Also worth mentioning that some of the additional pressures are due to the successes in medicine, people living longer (more cronic conditions in old age), more options to treat illness that would previously just been hopeless (long complex treatments for diseases that previously would be managed decline), some recognition of ill ness that we wouldn’t have known in the last and just given up on for the patient to suffer from.

    Technological advances making the most jobs less physically demanding (more unfit people), also better heating in homes and better insulation.

    Social changes such as those that David Evershed identifies, though I would point out is not totally gendered as it sometimes sounds. As we become richer (and more stressed) people value their leisure time more so more GPs will want a healthier balance in their lives, resulting in more GPs (in general) wanting to work better hours.

    Demographic change with a large number of GPs retiring due to a lumpy distribution of ages.

    Others are issues of problems elsewhere, poor support of the elderly and mentally ill. Also some of it is the failure to change expectations/methods of delivery of GP service (people still want/think they need to see a GP when Nurse Practitioner/Pharmacist would be better).

    But running through all the layers (and this is by no means comprehensive) takes times and that requires someone to be open to hearing it. Which is what brings us back to J Dunn’s point, we have to engage people not blame (and shame) them.

  • With the best will in the world, a net inward migration equal to the population of Coventry each year is not sustainable and it’s accelerating. Couple that with recruitment, retention and retirement issues in the NHS, and you have a double whammy. There is not one single cause of pressure on NHS services.

    Today you could wander into my GP’s surgery without an appointment and get seen immediately – a friend witnessed this. No-one wants to migrate here and I wish my GP would retire – I’d rather trust my healthcare to the local vet. Not only are there multiple causes but they vary considerably from area to area. You cannot say my parents’ perspectives are invalid when you have zero knowledge of the local circumstances. Their surgery has expanded and they have a full complement of doctors but the population expands faster. Multiple causes require multi-faceted responses.

  • Simon Banks 14th Sep '16 - 9:33am

    Stuart is accepting myths. Immigrants keep the NHS and private care homes going. Viewed as a single class, they put in a lot more than they take out of the NHS. I know full well from North Essex that many, many people who are anti-immigrant and anti-immigration live outwardly comfortable lives in areas where there are very few immigrants. There is also, of course, the confusion of “immigrant” with “non-white”, not much of an issue in Fenland, say, but certainly an issue in the North.

    Of course there are genuine problems created in a small number of areas by large-scale recent immigration inadequately responded to by a cash-strapped public sector. But that doesn’t account for more than a sliver of the anti-immigration vote – and anyone who listens to what people say on the doorstep will find opposition to immigration and loathing of immigrants are indeed tied up together for many of them.

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