Have Liberals been too ‘blase’ on immigration?

In the interview posted here Lord Turner, now a senior fellow at The Institute for New Economic Thinking says he believes that an ‘in-out referendum’ could produce a 30% chance of the UK leaving the EU. He describes it as a ‘non-trivial’ figure in which the issue of immigration could prove divisive enough to see sentiment push the scale the other way.

“Let’s be blunt, that [immigration] is what gets people worked up. And it’s very difficult to answer that because if you are in the European Union then free movement of people is one of the core freedoms.”

What is interesting here is that Lord Turner then becomes somewhat self-critical and calls out those he terms ‘Liberal elites’ as having been too ready to dismiss immigration as a non-issue:

“I think this is something the Liberal elites are guilty of. We have tended to say that immigration isn’t a problem. Well any reasonable theory of the determination of wages and trade will tell you that if you let large flows of unskilled immigration in then that will be good for the better-off person buying their coffee at Starbucks and not good for the person working at the minimum wage in the coffee shop. I think we in the Liberal elite have been far too blase about the impact of immigration and it has partly come back to bite us.”

I am inclined to agree. We need to address the sentiment reflected in recent polling: that immigration does impact some peoples lives in a negative way. Yet we need to do this in a manner that makes a nuanced case for the net economic benefits that occur. The strength of the argument that immigrants are on average more motivated workers than non-immigrants is one that plays out perfectly well against those that propagate the welfare-benefit myth. But in dismissing red-herring arguments used to prop up anti-immigration rhetoric we should not be distracted from addressing honest concerns about minimum wage jobs. The two are very separate things.

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