Worries about migration are not racist

Whatever economic benefits a higher population would bring would be balanced by environmental and social costs

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During the televised debates between the party leaders before the last election, David Cameron declared he wanted to cut immigration until it was "no longer an issue in our politics"; to bring net migration levels down to the "tens of thousands". At times, he said, net migration had reached 200,000 a year.

Fast forward to 2014, and we find Cameron presiding over net migration of 212,000 and immigration very much an issue. He announced this week that fresh changes to the immigration system would "put Britain first". EU migrants would only be allowed to claim benefits for three months, rather than six, and there would be curbs to an EU scheme whereby vacancies in job centres are advertised across the EU.

Others are talking slogans too. Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, declared in an interview this weekend that he wanted "fair movement, not free movement" within the EU. "You shouldn't be free to work in Britain and send back tax credits. You shouldn't be free to come to Britain and be unemployed. You shouldn't be free to come to Britain as soon as your country joins the EU."

Even Nick Clegg, who insists the Liberal Democrats are the only "real internationalist party", wants an immigration system that is "firm but fair, tough but smart". The firmness refers to a crackdown on bogus marriages; the fairness to his party's opposition to the detention of children in migrant centres. It's hard to argue against that, or even against a policy to "put Britain first". The question is whether any of this answers voters' real concerns about immigration. Those concerns are chiefly to do with numbers – with the scale of migration.

The Office for National Statistics suggests that given existing trends the population of England could increase by around 6.5 million in the next 25 years; another estimate puts the figure at nine million for the UK as a whole. Much of that is attributable to immigration and a higher birth rate in immigrant communities. And whatever undoubted economic benefits that would bring would be balanced by equally real environmental and social costs. Migrants are not so many Oompa Loompas: they need the NHS; they need housing and schooling for their children. They too need care in old age. It is not irrational and certainly not racist for voters to worry about all this. It is quite reasonable.

Yet it is questionable whether the parties' responses on immigration this week have been anything but the worst kind of dog-whistle politics, playing with ugly stereotypes about shiftless migrants, especially EU migrants. Is the target here meant to be gypsies, Roms? If so, politicians should be ashamed. And some of the supposedly tough measures touted this week do not bear much scrutiny. Fake marriages involve perhaps 2,000 people a year. Curbs on citizens of new EU states entering the labour market simply postpone their arrival for seven years. Curbing bogus students may help, but halving the period for which EU migrants can claim benefits is estimated to affect only 10,000 people.

Unless treaties are re-negotiated, EU citizens have the right to live and work within the EU, and that includes Britain. And most migrants come from outside the EU, something the Ukip obsession with the EU tends to obscure.

Some measures can help but they will require a clear-sighted look at the costs and benefits of migration and a rational debate about overall numbers. In his early days as Conservative leader, Cameron said he wanted a "grown-up conversation about immigration". Talking in slogans, dog-whistling to unreal fears and addressing bogus concerns are no solution to an issue that voters care about more than almost any other. They are certainly not grown-up.

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