What did we really vote for on the 23rd of June? The question on the ballot in the referendum was a binary choice which many saw as representing a number of decisions, but ultimately the only one which was actually made was to uncouple from the EU. That’ll be great news for those who wanted to “escape the clutches of Brussels” and “reclaim our sovereignty” (at least until our new PM is chosen by around 150,000 Tory party members), but what about people who voted to leave due to concerns about immigration?
One of my problems with the referendum campaign was that politicians weren’t challenged when they fanned the flames of Euroscepticism by allowing EU citizens living in the UK to be scapegoated for highly complex social problems. In my opinion, this is a short sighted approach which recognises only one of many contributing factors: we heard time and again that people had “legitimate concerns about immigration” and how it affected them when it came to four key areas: schools, the NHS, housing and jobs.
To attribute problems in each of these areas to a common cause and providing the ‘solution’ of greater control over immigration is a course of action likely to end in disappointment and greater disenfranchisement with the UK’s political establishment. A design approach known as problem based thinking, however, provides a model which could actually improve the lives of those who voted ‘leave’: by researching and then defining what is actually at the core of problems and dedicating time to developing and proving the viability of outcomes, an outcome can be synthesised which provides a more appropriate solution.
I would hope that being able to address the concerns which were raised by the 52% who voted to leave would be near the top of the ‘to do’ list for a new Prime Minister who may not face a real test of public approval until a General Election until 2020.
“People are concerned that immigration means that fewer school places are available” was one of the refrains which we heard time and again. Obviously more research must be done, but it would appear that the grievance here is that not enough school places are available. the UK’s population on the whole appears to be on the rise, which will in part be due to the number of people moving to the UK exceeding the number emigrating. The issue, however, is that people believe that our education system is not keeping up with demand.
The obvious answer here would be to increase, rather than keep on slashing, the budget for education and to focus on creating more school places, rather than on diversifying the education system by creating free schools and academising everything in sight. More money would mean more schools could be built, which would also allow children to be taught in smaller classes (another common complaint). To ensure the system’s quality whilst increasing its capacity, there would be a need to make the teaching profession more attractive to graduates – maths teachers in particular are in short supply – as well as giving teachers more incentive to stay in the profession: a problem which is currently facing our local MP.
Uncontrolled immigration has apparently increased demands on our National Health Service. Again, there are other causes to look at, such as a population whose average age is on the rise: people are living longer than they did in the past and typically require more care toward the end of their lives. As I mentioned in the previous section, an increasing population also means more demand on public services, and once again it would be foolish not to acknowledge immigration as a factor which has contributed to this population increase. I would say, however, that the issue here is with the NHS itself.
If the NHS is to maintain the standards we have come to expect, money has to be spent on it. You probably heard a promise or two about this throughout the referendum campaign and Michael Gove’s comments about being willing to increase spending if he were to become PM are welcome. With a larger budget, proposals to cut funding for nursing education could be revisited, addressing a problem with understaffing. The seemingly never-ending junior doctors’ saga could also be brought to a close: rather than trying to stretch resources dangerously thin, a deal could be agreed which benefits all parties. A happy resolution in this instance would also head off a rumoured exodus of our brightest and best medical students to other countries where more palatable working conditions are available.
On many occasions, we heard complaints about housing shortages, followed swiftly by the suggestion that they were due to uncontrolled immigration. Owen Jones was one voice throughout the campaign who maintained that this wasn’t the cause of the issue. On Question Time, the Guardian columnist stated unequivocally that “we let politicians off the hook when we blame foreigners for the government’s inability to build the housing that we desperately need.” This is the real problem: there simply isn’t enough housing available and successive administrations have failed to make any headway in this area.
“What can we do to increase the number of homes being built to meet the demand for #housing?” was the question hilariously posed on Twitter by the Government’s Communities and Local Government Select Committee yesterday. A number of responses were received suggesting the blindingly obvious: “build more homes” – yes, this would cost money, but it would help with job creation: as well as construction jobs, new communities would also require goods and services. Furthermore, the government could do more to help people who are looking to buy their very first homes (and encourage the sense of ‘aspiration’ which they are always so keen to promote) by insisting that a large proportion of ‘affordable homes’ are built as part of new developments.
This is probably the most sensitive issue to broach. Some people maintain that immigration has led to jobs being ‘stolen’, though more would be likely to say that EU migrants moving to the UK in search of work have made the task of securing a job more of a challenge. Part of the issue is that, in some areas, there simply isn’t enough work available. A more deep rooted grievance (as explored in a wonderfully crafted article by Mike Carter) is the failure of many towns and cities to recover from the loss of big industries such as mining and car manufacture. A lack of government support and the resultant scarcity of skilled jobs has meant not just a shortage of positions in some communities, but also a dearth of roles that offer a great deal of reward, leading to people feeling ‘left behind’ by globalisation and the way in which the UK’s economy has advanced.
The obvious solution is to encourage job creation. The likely halting of free movement of labour may mean that less applicants apply for certain roles, but that will only solve part of the problem. In a bid to create more jobs which we would describe as ‘skilled’, the Government could look to provide more grants to those who wish to start up their own businesses, and to existing ones which hope to expand. Projects like The Studio at Loughborough could be encouraged elsewhere and would certainly benefit graduates, but the stats show that they weren’t the people who overwhelmingly voted to leave due to worries about job prospects. As well as overhauling further education to improve people’s potential to continue to develop skills once they’ve left full-time education, apprenticeships would be another area to look at: the German model is seen as something to aspire to by many and would also encourage businesses to grow as people tend to stay with one organisation for a long time.
One quote which stuck with me from Carter’s article was that “there’s too many immigrants, and we can’t compete with the wages they’ll work for”. An end to free movement would allay some fears of competition, but the comment also betrays fears about the cost of living: for all of the Government’s advocacy for a ‘National Living Wage’, they must ensure that this is an improvement on the current minimum wage and allows recipients to enjoy a reasonable quality of life. Interestingly, wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t have to move between European countries to enjoy a better quality of life elsewhere? As part of the EU, we could have looked to address such a question by pushing for the introduction of a reasonable minimum wage across the whole continent.
It’s not widely known, but at one point the Government ran a ‘migrant impact fund’ to deal with issues including education, housing and healthcare in areas which experienced population rises due to immigration. It was binned by the coalition Government in 2010, but its resurrection was discussed (far too briefly in my opinion) at times during the referendum campaign. The bittersweet gift of hindsight allows us to speculate – what might have happened if a revival and improvement of something which was “not a priority” in 2010 had been discussed as part of David Cameron’s renegotiations earlier this year? We’ll never know.
I’m not a politician. I’m training to be a designer: hence the slightly idealistic thinking. I’m just trying to approach people’s concerns from an alternative angle. I do think, however, that it’s unwise to say that the Government needs to keep on relentlessly cutting costs until ‘the deficit’ is no more. George Osborne has admitted, after all, that reaching a budget surplus by 2020 (one of the promises which got him re-elected last year) is now an impossibility. By all accounts, we’re in a spot of bother anyway and there’s a real need to address problems which have been getting worse for years, so what’s the harm in spending a bit more?
Jeremy Corbyn was ridiculed when he ran for the Labour Leadership under an anti-austerity banner, speculating that a method called quantitative easing could be used to ‘print money’ to fund projects to help kick-start the UK’s economy. Similarly, some dismissed Stephen Crabb’s suggestions earlier this week of a £100 billion Government investment in infrastructure as unrealistic. Both Crabb and Corbyn’s approaches may be seen as economically irresponsible, but I can’t help but feel that they would do more to address the issues above than an end to free movement of labour and a continuation (and potential increase in severity) of the austerity project.
– By Liam David Hopley