‘We’ve lost the immigration figures!’: the politics of number and the politics of the person

One of the most memorable moments from the political satire The Thick of It, and one of the easiest to believe, is when the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship has suffered a catastrophic loss of data on what is perhaps the most sensitive topic in British political debate. The department’s special adviser, Ollie Reeder, claps his hands to his head and moans like a beached whale: ‘We’ve lost the immigration figures!’

For all that a particularly ‘sympathetic’ individual case can temporarily mobilise public interest – the former Commonwealth soldiers facing deportation or the Afghan interpreter whose asylum claim was rejected (and then reopened) by the UK Border Agency – the greatest sins a British government can commit to do with immigration seem to revolve around numbers: allowing too many immigrants to enter, or even worse, not knowing how many immigrants in the country there are.

Before I go on to talk about the flaws in this kind of ‘politics of number’ (a term I’m picking up from Jenny Edkins’s recent book on missing persons), I ought to be open about the fact that I believe UK immigration policy as it has developed is restrictive and damaging. Its impact on the sector I work in worries me. If a British university wants to field a world-class team of researchers and teachers, it has to have freedom to pick them from around the world, and at all career levels from graduate student up; I don’t believe it would have improved my prospects as a British job-seeker in higher education, or my aspirations to become a world-class researcher myself, if I’d been prevented from learning from the best. (The current immigration tiers are supposed to make allowances for immigrants of extraordinary ability, but depend on quotas which are clearly insufficient.) Fee increases, the abolition of the post-study work visa, and fiascos such as London Met’s loss of student visa sponsorship privileges or the recent queues outside the Overseas Visitors Records Office in London all dissuade non-EEA students from considering the UK rather than ‘competitor’ university providers. Non-EEA students are an important source of revenue for UK universities, although I can’t use that to justify my position if I also feel tuition fees are too high. Rather, having taught in a department where its multinational character was a distinctive part of its ethos, I know that everyone in the classroom (British taxpayers and the children of British taxpayers included, if that’s how we have to play it) received a higher quality experience because of the range of people there and the different kinds of knowledge they could bring.

And it’s easy for me to say that. I don’t experience the negative social effects that are attributed to immigration. But I do believe that the people most responsible for those effects aren’t immigrants. We can’t explain housing shortages without explaining why homes and land are allowed to stand empty, why few properly ‘affordable’ homes are built, why the political consensus is that rents should be uncontrolled, or why it isn’t a policy goal for as many people as possible to be able to live near their workplace and travel sustainably. We can’t explain the widespread common-sense perception that immigrants undercut the wages of British workers without asking why the kind of exploitative conditions recorded in this research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are allowed to happen to any worker within territory controlled by the British state.

I find it frustrating that no mainstream political option in England is regularly asking these questions. (Scotland may be another matter.) Yet I also find it frustrating that, even when politicians argue in favour of a more open immigration policy, the arguments they make are so often framed in terms of numbers.

Last month I watched the live stream of a House of Commons debate on immigration, which discussed a motion raised by a Conservative MP, Nicholas Soames, who was calling on the government ‘to take all necessary steps to reduce immigration to a level that will stabilise the UK’s population as close as possible to its present level’. (What are those necessary steps? The SNP’s Pete Wishart challenged Soames straight away to spell them out. They were still left to our imagination.) It took more than an hour, when Labour’s Fiona Mactaggart began describing the lives of her constituents in Slough, for any speaker to talk about immigration through any lens other than the number of immigrants or their impact on the British population:

What I object to most about the motion is its focus on numbers and its failure to focus on the lives of human beings. That is the issue. If we are thinking about migration policy, the first thing we need to do is think about who the migrants are, what they are here for and what the benefits are to them, their families, the communities they come to and the country as a whole.

Frankly, there is a serious consequence of not starting from the question of the lives of human beings, and we saw it in the decision on London Metropolitan University, where there has been a collective punishment of perfectly legitimate students for the failure of the institution at which they registered in all good faith. I am not saying that every student was necessarily legitimate, but we know that those students who are and who fulfil all the requirements have been collectively punished, absolutely contrary to British traditions, for the failure of the institution in which they work. That is a consequence of trying to decide immigration policy not on its human consequences, but on some abstract numerical basis. (Hansard 6 Sep 2012: 441-2)

I’m not a fan of everything Mactaggart does as a politician, particularly not her stance on sex work. But I couldn’t agree with her more here. Immigration policy does fail to focus on the lives of human beings, and has done so for a long time. And it’s far from the only thing that fails to do that.

The chances are, even someone reading this who wants to freeze or reduce immigration has probably been annoyed in some or other way by ‘computer says no’ culture – making decisions according to quantified criteria, with no regard for individual circumstances or possibility for human discretion. (The phrase comes from the sketch show Little Britain. I’m even less comfortable with most of Little Britain‘s representations than I am with Mactaggart’s stance on sex work, but this one is a useful addition to the language; a journalist during the RBS computer failure can ask, for instance, ‘what is their back up plan should the “computer say no”?’) Think about the number of situations that are now determined by computerised credit scoring or risk assessment, with nobody to complain to should the circumstances of your life not fit neatly into the average and the computer say no.

You could argue that fully quantified decision-making is fairer; that wherever there’s discretion there’s always room for discrimination, through conscious or unconscious prejudice. I still believe that’s something we can overcome, with strong personal and institutional commitment.

The political culture we live under today, writes Jenny Edkins in her book Missing, is ‘a politics that misses the person, a politics that objectifies and instrumentalizes’ (p. 2). I reviewed it a few months ago and found it a powerful way to think about what’s left out of contemporary public policy. Policy on the economy and welfare assumes that people are fully interchangeable individuals, without ties to each other or to places. They should move where the jobs are – ‘get on your bike’, in the words attributed to Norman Tebbit, and now actualised in a welfare policy that forces councils in areas with high housing costs to house social tenants in other parts of the country. Under this logic, to take a job that doesn’t fully use your potential to generate value is irrational. To keep an extra room up in your household so that family and friends can visit you is a luxury, for which recipients of housing benefit are to be penalised. These other human needs are unquantifiable, or at least (and I’m a qualitative researcher, so I would say this, wouldn’t I) something of their force is lost when we do quantify them. Edkins believes that the market principle is actually unable to take account of them:

The economic individual […] is exchangeable one for another, and ranked by wealth, purchasing power, or entitlements. The market principle allows us to ignore the needs of someone who has no money and who thus cannot express those needs in terms that the economic system can recognize. (p. 9)

In Edkins’s criticism of the market, there are echoes of Michael Sandel and his ethical questions about what money can’t buy; the passionate defence of the person as something, someone, who should not be reduced to economic value but so often is was also the strongest message I took away from reading David Graeber’s Debt. It’s there, more pithily, in the ethics of Terry Pratchett’s voice of wisdom, the witch Granny Weatherwax, who debates sin with a zealous priest in the novel Carpe Jugulum:

[‘S]in, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’

‘It’s a lot more complicated than that—’

‘No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.’

‘Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—’

‘But they starts with thinking about people as things…’

I think this is why I’m frustrated by the official response that Labour, as this country’s opposition, has made to the heavily increased means tests for family visas – precisely the type of rules that are based entirely on economic calculations, unable to accommodate the many reasons why a person might fail to meet the criteria, and tailored by design to exclude the bottom half of British earners from bringing spouses or dependents to settle in the UK. (This may mean that, in cases such as a UK/US civil partnership, the couple are also unable to settle in the other partner’s country.) The shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, would prefer ‘to insist that anyone sponsoring a partner into this country deposits a financial bond, which would be used to protect the taxpayer and meet any unforeseen costs that might be incurred, and which would be redeemable after a fixed period’. There’s still an idea here that the welcomeness of immigration is to be understood primarily in terms of whether or not a person will cost the state more money than they pay back. It’s still a financial calculation, which has to depend on the idea that a person’s worth is somehow linked to how much money they can make. That’s a slippery slope, which has voting rights based on property qualifications at or near the bottom.

This isn’t opposition, at least not as I see it. Both sides are actually saying the same thing. The means test and the bond are both justified with the language of ‘fairness’; I want to suggest that the logic behind both those solutions has consequences that are profoundly unfair.

Behind all this there are beliefs about what kinds of knowledge are useful and what it’s appropriate to do with them. My own views on statistics are probably clear by now. It wouldn’t be possible to manage a modern state without them: you’ve got to work out how many houses need building somehow. But it’s personal histories and understanding or observing what people do that will tell you things like how they find the money to pay their housing costs, what trade-offs they make when they can’t afford everything that they might want in a home, what they use the rooms of their homes for, what amenities they need near their homes, how they want to decorate them and cook in them and heat and cool them, how they need their homes adapted to what their bodies are able or unable to do. Understanding those things will mean the houses that get built are better. Or at least I think so.

And when it comes to our values, the ethics we want to express as part of a political community, and the principles we want the people who politically represent us to be guided by, I don’t think we can determine those purely on the basis of statistics. Or at least I think so, too.

Because otherwise, it starts and finishes with seeing people as things.