If statistical reason collapsed, it was a while back

Will Davies writes about immigration, politics, and what he calls the “collapse of statistical reason”:

The macro-economic case for immigration – that it is a net positive for both public finances and economic growth – was integral to New Labour’s tacit, occasionally explicit, support for high levels of immigration. This was a broadly neoliberal type of justification, submerging rights-based arguments within the logic of open markets, as the European Commission has done as well. This was accompanied by a sense of economic realism, that employers would not countenance any drastic political interventions in international labour markets.

What is now better understood, however, is that appeals to statistics or to some apparent economic reality (such as ‘globalisation’) have the opposite of the desired political effect. It is not simply that they do not persuade those who are skeptical of immigration’s benefits; they can result in increased antipathy. Focus groups carried out by British Future show that when presented with evidence for macro-economic benefits, people will often respond that the statistics are biased, that they are based on inadequate knowledge of who has really entered the country, and that these numbers are being used to justify the political ambitions of policy elites. Such data incites quasi-conspiracy theories, that the government is concealing the truth, sometimes leading respondents to become even more paranoid about immigration. By contrast, qualitative forms of evidence – photographs and anecdotes of ‘successful’ integration of immigrants – are met with a far more positive response.

I am not sure he is right. I cannot remember many New Labour ministers ever making such a case, for a start. I do, however, remember a lot of them climbing onto the bully pulpit to complain that nobody was talking about immigration and to boast about how tough on asylum seekers they were being. For people who thought they weren’t allowed to, they sure did it a lot. They frequently also argued, quite specifically, that it was wrong to talk about the economy and statistical aggregates instead of personal, qualitative stories about people’s neighbourhoods. In terms of method, they were famously keen on qualitative focus groups as a means of perceiving the public. This Twitter thread refers.

This also reminded me of the following quote from How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt:

Our civic life has become a doughnut, with empty calories surrounding a hollow center where questions of class, occupation, pay, and power might once have been debated and expressed. We had become a nation with little legitimate space to express either the external or the internal conflicts of economic inequality — and that is a dangerous and volatile place for any republic to find itself.

And Tom Powdrill:

However, one of the big blunders the Third Way type ‘modernisers’ (they don’t seem modern anymore, do they?) was to assume that because people spent less time thinking about their workplace identity, and more about other aspects, that the workplace didn’t matter any more. In addition, it was too uncritical of the idea that we think like consumers about all kinds of things (public services, politics) and that therefore it was smart to relate to the public in a consumer-provider relationship and encourage this more generally.

Now a major, declared goal of policy in the Blair years was precisely to fill the doughnut with something – as long as it wasn’t jam, or anything else appropriately red in colour. Various different fillings were tried.

The Home Office’s entries in this Great British Policy Bakeoff didn’t change much from Jack Straw to David Blunkett to Charles Clarke to John Reid to Jacqui Smith. In fact, it has changed very little from Michael Howard’s tenure in the 1990s to Theresa May’s in the 2010s. The proposed filling would consist of what we might call macro-security – police powers, bulk surveillance, border control. Government would perform concern for public demands by doing stuff with the police apparatus. (Perhaps the blue in Blue Labour is the dark serge of the uniform.)

An alternative flavour concentrated on what we might call micro-security. This eventually got an institutional anchorage in the Department for Communities and Local Government, but in fact it was a team effort between bits of the No.10 policy apparatus, the Treasury, the Department for Education, and the housing policy world. The iconic figure here is Hazel Blears, and the key concern was a sort of neighbourhood politics reduced to its more censorious elements. (You were very much not encouraged to concern yourself with, say, public housing.) Civic life was to be rebuilt through a succession of respectability-policing projects, from the bottom up.

You’ll observe that both flavours have a distinct savour of authority. Also, neither of them worked, either in the sense of providing political cover for a wider liberal agenda or in that they were a better alternative to statistics, either as a means of perceiving the world or as a means of persuading others. In fact, the quantitative turn in left-wing practice came later, in reaction to a British Labour or US Democratic habit of being obsessed with focus-group gurus like Frank Luntz.

Meanwhile, this starts to sound positively nostalgic:

The sense that centralized experts will ‘deliver’ outcomes to a population, who will experience those outcomes in a subjective, consumerist fashion

3 comments

  1. Chris E

    I agree with you that the Chronicle argument underplays the extent to which the centre was filled with ‘something’. In fact that they did this in an unstated/sotto voce manner set the stage for those very Blue Labour types who could gain short term political capital by railing on all those topics ‘you can’t talk about any more’.

    .. this kind of thing carried out by successive Home Secs probably laid the ground work for the current ‘unaccountable elites/experts’ train of thought. After all, if a serving minister couldn’t change things .. either there was an unaccountable elite, or they were part of the conspiracy.

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  3. Guano

    New Labour inherited and accepted the Thatcher legacy of globalisation and membership of the EU/Single Market, and thus they inherited FoM of Europeans that was part of the Single Market. New Labour made quite a bit of noise in favour of globalisation (for example Charles Clarke calling people who questioned globalisation as “Luddites”) and “being at the heart of Europe”. I don’t remember them making much noise in favour of immigration and I don’t think that there’s much evidence that they explicitly favoured a policy of immigration except as part of the Single Market package.

    It was in the middle of the New Labour period that immigration became an issue, but as a result of decisions taken in the Thatcher and Major years. The expansion of the Single Market (a Thatcher legacy) to countries in eastern and southern Europe (a Thatcher and Major priority) led to the noticeable phenomenon of immigrants from Poland and Romania. The 2001 census results (and the creation of the Greater London Authority) brought to the foreground the fact that the population of London was growing and had been since the Big Bang (though it had gone unnoticed and many policies (like closing schools) had been based on the myth that the population of London was still shrinking.

    The response of New Labour to the bullshit in the tabloids wasn’t to say “this is the result of decisions taken by previous governments such as your heroine Thatcher” but to try to provide cover for the policies by appearing to be doing something by, for example, giving staff at immigration control a uniform and calling them Border Force.

    As you say, this hasn’t worked and, apparently, a lot of voters (and MPs) still want to have their cake and eat it.

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