Sunday, 14 October 2012

The difficulties of a ‘coalition of the rational’ on immigration

One of the intriguing ideas to emerge from the Labour party conference earlier this month is shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant’s proposal of a non-partisan ‘coalition of the rational’ in favour of immigration. The idea is attractive and interesting because it raises the ideological complexity of the issue. However, it is this very complexity that threatens the feasibility of the hope.

What Bryant appears to recognise is that immigration is an issue that cuts across the traditional left right divide, pitting libertarians against conservatives on the right, and liberals against egalitarians on the left. If those in favour of migration are to prevail, they are of  course going to have to reach out to those on the other side of the spectrum.

However, it is important to recognise how difficult this diversity of opinion makes forming and maintaining such a coalition. I think it’s generally true that the inherent difficulty of coalitions stems from the fact that people agree on something, but do so for different reasons. Immigration is unusual because of the extremely high number of different ways in which people can be in favour of it: because it promotes economic prosperity, because it helps businesses, because it reduces state regulation, because it brings cultural benefits, because it atones for historic injustices, to name but a few.

Both Bryant and Don Flynn of Migrants’ Rights Network, who has also discussed the idea, appear to be too optimistic about the scale of the differences between potential coalition partners. Bryant’s moniker for the group suggests that all unprejudiced ‘rational’ people will inevitably come to the same conclusion. Meanwhile, Flynn seems to suggest that there are only two necessary conditions for the project to be a success: transcending party tribalism, and establishing the facts about immigration.

Both these views seem to suggest that a common appreciation of ‘the facts' is all we need to establish common ground on immigration. But this is a gross oversimplification of the diversity of possible positions on the topic. For a start, how would we even know what the relevant facts are? Is it about the effects of immigration on growth, unemployment, Gini coefficients, or what? Different facts will seem salient or irrelevant to different people, and I would suggest that no set of facts will convince people of all perspectives.

Even more threatening to the vision of a coalition of the rational is the fact that the same set of facts may be received in diametrically opposite ways by different people. Let’s say immigration doesn’t significantly affect the bargaining power of labour, or cause wages to fall. That might encourage egalitarians to favour immigration, but equally it could alienate pro-business types from the cause. If it were to emerge that immigrants are overwhelmingly high skilled, the news might be taken as positive by those who see immigration as an engine of growth, but it is unlikely to be cheered by cosmopolitans concerned by brain drain in developing countries.

The point is that the very diversity of values and assumptions that make a wide pro-immigration coalition possible also make it inherently fragile, especially to new facts. And frankly, that is what makes the idea so interesting.