Support for the Swiss anti-immigration party SVP and actual share of immigrants


Share of non-Swiss by canton and vote for the Swiss People's Party

In the graph above I have plotted the share of immigrants in Swiss cantons and the percentage of votes for the Swiss People’s Party in the Swiss federal elections of October 16. The relationship is similar as the one we could observe for the anti-immigration referendum earlier. The fewer migrants there are, the more people vote for an anti-immigration party. Some numbers should be taken with caution, however. For instance, Ticino and Geneva have other anti-immigration parties (the Lega dei Ticinesi and the MCG respectively), and the election in Nidwald is de facto a majoritarian election, which explains its outlier status.

The Economic Dilemma of UKIP

Political Science, United Kingdom, Welfare

Let us take a short trip Back to the Future. Step into The Doc’s DeLorean modified time Machine, fasten your seat belt, greet Marty McFly in the back seat, and set the destination to 2016 Britain. We accelerate to 88 miles per hour, and after a loud “bang”, it only takes a few seconds to land after the next general election. There are no flying skateboards, the weather is still miserable and the Royal Family is still reigning, but we have a new government. Just like in the last 2010 election, none of the two big parties managed to gain a majority in the Commons. Due to poor electoral strategies, Labour did not profit from David Cameron’s failures in government, and the Tories have come out of the elections once again with the biggest number of seats. However, their former allies, the Liberal Democrats, have suffered a severe electoral setback, and no longer have enough seats to secure a majority. Instead, the Tories have chosen to form a coalition with the party that made a true electoral breakthrough: Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party. What kind of policies can we expect  from such a coalition, and would it be viable politically? Would UKIP and the Conservatives agree on issues such as welfare, pensions, taxation and social benefits?

In many ways, a Tory-UKIP coalition in the future is not completely science-fiction. UKIP – as well as a number of other Eurosceptic, anti-immigration parties throughout Europe – is  bound to make considerable advances in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament. A poll conducted in January by the Independent on Sunday revealed that UKIP was the most favourably regarded party in Britain with 27% of favourable opinions, even if voting intentions still placed Labour and the Conservatives ahead. However, UKIP seems indeed to have overtaken the Liberal Democrats as the main alternative to the big two parties: Labour was first with 35%, the Tories were at 30%, UKIP was at 19% and the Libdems at 8%[1]. While European elections are often considered as “second-order” events where voters are more likely to sanction governments and bigger parties because they are presumably less important, EP elections still showcase the strength of the different political forces that will matter for future national elections. In Britain, UKIP is a serious electoral contender, and its impact on government policies can already be felt. The government’s tougher line about immigration control, or the promise to hold an “in-out” referendum about the European Union are without doubt targeted at voters tempted by Nigel Farage’s party. Some Tory politicians have already evoked potential alliances between the Conservative Party and UKIP[2]. Hence, such a coalition cannot be ruled out in the future, even if the first-past-the-post system obviously constitutes a severe hurdle for parties outside the Labour/Conservative duopoly. In first-past the post, what matters is not only how many voters parties have, but also how they are distributed geographically, and UKIP still seems to be lacking as to this second criterion.

UKIP as a Working-Class Party

Besides institutional barriers to acces constituted by the electoral system, UKIP and the Conservatives would need to reconcile the preferences of their respective electorates. If this does not look like a huge problem when it comes to issues such as immigration control and relationships with the European Union, it would certainly be more problematic when it comes to public spending, welfare, pensions, taxes and the like. This is essentially because UKIP and Conservative voters tend to have different socio-economic profiles, different interests and different preferences.

On the one hand, recent research has shown that UKIP has the most working class electorate of all British parties[3]. For some time, many believed that the typical UKIP voter was the disgruntled anti-EU middle-class Tory in the South-East. However, it appears that the UKIP electorate is in fact similar to that of other populist radical-right parties in Western Europe: working class, “pale, male and stale”. The core electorate of UKIP is constiotuted by blue-collar workers, predominantly male, older, with low formal education levels, who feel threated by immigration and economic change, and loathe a political class composed of what they perceive – no without reason – as a bunch of posh, privately educated middle-class Oxbridge graduates. Sociologically, UKIP voters would have been the social groups which used to vote Labour in the 1960s and 1970s, but have been forgotten by New Labour in its drive to appeal to urban middle classes. This pehenomenon is by no means a British exception: in countries such as France, Belgium or Austria, the populist radical right is now the most popular party family amongst the native working class – after abstention – while left wing parties essentially source their voters in the new middles classses (teachers, public sector workers, healthcare workers and professionals). After Tony Blair’s drive to the right, managers are now as likely to vote for Labour than for the Conservatives, and the days of old Labour seem long gone.

Interestingly, the preferences of UKIP voters in terms of economic policies also tend to be more left-wing, even if they intend to vote for a party often considered on the far-right. Research on the US also shows that supporters of the Tea Party, which can be considered as the equivalent of UKIP, also often rely on federal welfare programs while supporting a party that wants to scrap them. Hence, there is often a wide gap between the preferences of the voters and the agenda of the party elites in these domains. A recent Yougov poll showed that 73% and 78% of UKIP voters supported the nationalisation of railway and energy companies respectively[4]. Corresponding figures were twice 52% for Conservative voters, and 79 and 82% for Labour voters. Hence, UKIP voters tend to be closer to Labour voters when it comes to socio-economic issues and state intervention in the economy, while Conservative voters prefer market-based solutions, a smaller state and lower taxes.

Accordingly, austerity policies and cuts in public spending pushed by the Conservative party can be thought to hurt the UKIP electoral base, as lower-educated working-class people also rely to a larger extent on public services than higher incomes who can purchase services privately. A conservative-UKIP coalition would inevitably run into this kind of dilemma, and UKIP is conscious of this. At first, its electoral manifesto promised both lower taxes for all and more spending, for instance by scrapping the bedroom tax[5], or establishing a 31% flat tax rate for all.[6]This is is feasible in opposition, but more problematic when a party accesses government and needs to fulfill its irrealistic promises.Eventually, however, UKIP ended up disowning its whole 2010 party manifesto until after the EP elections, claiming that all its policies were now “under review”.[7] It has been shown that populist right-wing parties such as UKIP are particularly prone to “blur” their positions on economic issues in order to solve these dilemmas.[8]

Betraying Voters, or Betraying other Parties?

In a forthcoming article in the European Political Science Review[9], I show that once these parties take part in government coalitions, however, blurring their position becomes more difficult, and they need to make a choice between office and votes when it comes to socio-economic policies. On the one hand, as argued above, they appeal to a large segment of working-class voters who are supportive of state intervention, and obviously those from which they benefit directly. This includes traditional social security schemes such as old-age pensions. On the other hand, in Western Europe – things are a bit different in Central and Eastern Europe –  these parties have only been able to form government coalitions with Conservative or Liberal parties who are more likely to retrench these very same welfare programmes, and who can even be rewarded electorally for cutting public spending. If populist right-wing parties choose office and want to maximise their coalition potential, they may support retrenchment measures in exchange of concessions about immigration control, but at the cost of betraying their working-class electorate and facing substantial electoral losses at the next elections when cuts in public spending bite in. If they choose votes and seek to protect their electorate from retrenchment, they jeopardise their participation in government by betraying their coalition partners, who often cooperate with them precisely in order to pass austerity measures with little opposition. For this analysis, I have carried out fieldwork in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, three countries where the radical right took part in government at some point in time, and where pension reforms were put on the agenda. In all three countries, the tensions between office and votes outlined above were visible, and can serve as interesting signposts for the problems a Conservative/UKIP coalition might face.

In Austria, the Conservative ÖVP chose to form a coalition with the radical right FPÖ in 2000 as a way to curtail the left and trade unions, and push retrenchment reforms that had been impossible to carry out with the social-democrats in government. Accordingly, the FPÖ went for office and basically subscribed to the retrenchment agenda of its coalition partner in exchange of a tightening of immigration rules. While reforming welfare had proved extremely difficult in the past, this allowed for a number of swift welfare reforms to cut public spending, notably by increasing the age of retirement. The problem was that these reforms soon led to a revolt within the FPÖ, precisely because they were hurting the very electoral base of the party, which just like UKIP, was composed of blue-collar, older and male workers. A number of internal dissensions led to the creation of a splinter party, the BZÖ, and Jörg Haider, the party leader, heavily criticised its own ministers for hurting the “small people” the party was claiming to represent. In the end, the Conservatives of the ÖVP chose to drop the FPÖ and get back to form a coalition with the social-democrats, whom they considered more reliable.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s eurosceptic Party for Freedom (PVV) similarly committed to support a minority coalition formed by the Liberals and the Christian Democrats in 2010. In the run-up to the elections, Wilders had said that he would do everything he could to keep the retirement age at 65 for “Henk and Ingrid”, the typical hard-working, “squeezed middle” Dutch voters that he sought to appeal to. Accordingly he had said that the retirement age at 65 was a “breaking point” in any coalition negotiation with other parties. One day after his party obtained its best election result ever, however, Wilders said that the retirement age was “no longer a breaking point”, and agreed to support a coalition government between the Christian Democrats and Liberals determined to pursue a harsh austerity agenda, with some concessions regarding immigration and healthcare. However, unwilling to betray explicitly an election promise, the PVV systematically refused to support any attempt to increase the retirement age, forcing the government to seek support from smaller parties. Eventually, after the Netherlands entered a recession in 2012 and was forced to carry out even harsher spending cuts, Wilders pulled out of the government, arguing that he could not support austerity measures that would hurt “Henk and Ingrid”.

Finally, in Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) consistently pushed for retrenchment in welfare programmes as a way to fight “abusers” of social assistance taking advantage of “honest taxpayers’s money”. The SVP notably also pushed for an increase in the age of retirement  without any compensation in an alliance with the Liberals and Christian democrats against social democrats and trade unions. In this sense, the Swiss radical right diverged slightly from parties in other countries by adopting a clearly more neoliberal profile, similarly to UKIP when it doesn’t seek to “blur” or conceal its socio-economic positions. However, in Switzerland as well, the contradictions between office and votes were also visible, as its electoral base is also constituted by large working-class segments. Hence, in the referendum votes called by trade unions and the left to challenge these reforms, a majority of the electorate of the Swiss People’s Party disavowed the party elites by refusing an increase in the age of retirement. Conscious of these internal contradictions, the party subsequently contributed to torpedo another reform where its internal conflicts between a neoliberal elite and protectionist voters would come out once again, this time in the run-up to a new election. This was another strategy to blur and conceal the contradictions of its economic agenda.

In general, parties such as UKIP which build their entire electoral profile on an anti-establishment agenda have a hard time being in government, at the very core of the establishment. The interesting thing about their economic impact is that they do not emphasise economic issues as their prime area of competence, and voters do not vote for them primarily because of their economic positions. However, this is precisely what makes them expedient allies for Conservative parties, since they may be more willing to subscribe to austerity in exchange of a tightening in their domains of predilection (iimigrationa nd law and order), hoping that their own voters won’t see how austerity affects their own interests. Oftentimes, however, these calculations tend to be marked by overconfidence, and to bite them back at election time.

Another version of this paper will be published in Dialogue, the magazine of KCL’s Politics Society.

Why School Choice is Bad for Social Mobility


I am quite a good example of  social mobility. My parents only completed obligatory school – that was four years in rural Portugal in the 1950s – and started working at 12. They moved to France and then Switzerland in the 1970s, and worked their whole lives in unskilled jobs. In spite of that, I went to university, obtained a doctorate and have now a permanent academic position in a highly-ranked university.

However, this upward mobility was only made possible by certain conditions. I grew up in Switzerland, where the quality of education was probably much better than what it would have been if my parents had stayed in Portugal. I grew up in a relatively wealthy village with a library just down the street, that I would visit at least twice a week to refill the comics and books that I didn’t have at home. Most importantly, I grew up in a country where everybody goes to state schools, and where there is no choice in selecting your school. Social reproduction is obviously present, but there is no stigma attached to state schools, as is often the case in Britain. Actually, it may be the contrary. The only people I know who would go to private schools would typically be children of wealthy parents who didn’t make it in the state system. If their grades weren’t good enough to go to the higher tier of the state system, their parents would place them in a private school with classes with only 5 pupils and tutorials to hold their hand until university. Same for university: I just went to my local university without even thinking about going elsewhere. All Swiss universities are pretty good. Even if you don’t go to university, which is the case of about 70% of each age cohort, you can still make a very good life thanks to vocational education.

I have friends in the UK who have children, and I am amazed by how complicated it is early on to select the right school for your children. If you don’t put them in the right primary school, they then might not get into the right secondary school, and then not get good enough A-levels and then they won’t go to the right university, and then they’ll basically fail their life. Even if you’re a good student, you won’t be drilled in the same way to go to a good university in a bad state school, and people seem to rely to a much larger extent on the shortcuts provided by school or university rankings.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my parents had moved to the UK instead of Switzerland, without knowing which schools are best, without being able to afford to send me to a private school or live in the catchment area of a good state school, without writing English well enough to lobby for me to go to a better school, besides not being able to help me with my homework. I probably wouldn’t have done as well because my parents wouldn’t have been able to make the right choices for me, or wouldn’t have had the money to make these choices. This is not because my parents didn’t want the best for me, but their conception of hard work has more to do with getting up early and working hard, as they have done their whole life, rather than educational achievement that they haven’t experienced themselves. In the UK 42.5 per cent of all children whose mothers were highly educated but not British were taught in disadvantaged schools. With the children of poorly educated mothers, the figure rises to 80 per cent – the worst record in the OECD. Hence, being educated but an immigrant doesn’t even offset the segregation created by school choice.

School choice in the UK places so much of a burden on parents that it is naturally bound to reproduce social inequalities. Even if the money part is left aside, it assumes that all parents have the same cultural capital to make perfectly informed education choices for their children and help them “fit in” in the middle class environment of quality schools. Hence, a government advisor – who “was raised in a £150,000 semi-detached house (…), went to Aylesbury Grammar School and then on to Cambridge University” apparently declared that working-class children

need to become more comfortable with middle-class social setting such as restaurants, theatres and offices if they are to succeed.

Working class families are urged to watch plays, visit museums and try middle class food, restaurants and shops to broaden their child’s life experience.

This is simply amazing: as if a middle class habitus could be acquired with a few trips to the national gallery. Even assuming that children need to conform to middle-class values to perform better, working-class children are very unlikely to acquire these values if all rich kids stay amongst themselves in private schools. Now it’s no wonder that Britain has one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the OECD. For instance, in no other OECD country is the income of your parents so correlated to your own income. Only 3% of the richest 20% have mothers with no qualifications. The social segregation allowed by school choice is also one of the reasons why this huge country is run by such a small group of upper-class people with so similar backgrounds, via Eton, because that is where social networks are built, and working-class kids are excluded from them. Now the government says that it wants to rewards people who “work hard and get on”, but people who do – like my parents – without education credentials have seen their real wages fall and the major parties abandon them.

This may be related precisely to so much school choice that upper class parents can more aptly exploit, either by placing their children in private schools or knowing better how to place them inthe good state schools, while children of working class parents are left amongst themselves in poor quality state schools. A strong quality public education sector seems to be a much better way to counter these tendencies, while increasing school choice seems bound to perpetuate them.


Ending school segregation is the key to social mobility

UK school the “most socially segregated in the world”

La cuisine statistique de l’UDC



On vote dimanche sur l’initiative “contre l’immigration de masse”. L’UDC a produit des projections de croissance de la population dans ses encarts publicitaires qui ont déjà été critiquées par Martin Grandjean (ci-dessus). l’UDC base ses projections sur la croissance de la population si l’immigration restait à des niveau similaires à ceux de ces dernières années, où l’économie suisse s’est portée particulièrement bien.

Le meilleur moyen de comprendre que ces projections sont fausses est de regarder dans le passé. L’immigration en Suisse a fortement augmenté dans la seconde moitié des années 1980. Si l’on fait une projection basée sur le solde migratoire des années 1985-1991, la Suisse serait aujourd’hui en train de recevoir plus de 200’000 étrangers de plus chaque année (immigration moins émigration). Toutefois, la conjoncture s’est fortement fléchie à partir de 1991, avec un fort impact sur le niveau d’immigration. Le solde migratoire global s’est même approché de zéro en 1997, et il est en fait devenu négatif pour les citoyens européens (plus de citoyens européens ont quitté la Suisse qu’il n’y a eu d’arrivées). Comme le montre le graphique ci-dessous, l’immigration réelle a en fait été beaucoup plus faible que ce qui aurait pu être projeté, en particulier car l’immigration européenne est plus sensible à la conjoncture.


Source: OFS.

The Media as a Chinese Whisper Machine

Migration, Uncategorized

In his book (based on a public lecture) on Television, Bourdieu uses a good concept to describe how information is produced within the news media: he calls it the “circular circulation of information”. In a nutshell, the main idea is that, despite its function as a window open to the world, the media actually work in a relatively closed setting. The main source of information for journalists are the media themselves, journalists have their own implicit rules about what is interesting (scandal, exclusivity, being the first on a story), and the most avid readers of newspapers are… journalists in other newspapers. The Daily Mail talks about something because the Telegraph talks about it, Channel 4 prepares its headlines after watching what the BBC has done, and so on and so forth. Competition creates a lot of uniformity. This makes for a fairly closed mechanism of production. As for analogies, you could think of a mass enterprise in Chinese whispers, or a giant echo chamber where a relatively small sample of news stories gets distorted, modified and amplified at each stage of the process, while others are ignored.

There is a great example today about – again – Oprah Winfrey’s experience in a Swiss shop, where a shop assistant allegedly refused to show her a super-expensive bag, saying it was – precisely – too expensive. Oprah said it was a case of racism, which the owner of the shop has denied. On Sunday, the Sonntagsblick has interviewed the shop assistant who served Oprah to have her version. Here’s what she said

“Was haben Sie getan?
 Ich ging zu einer Vitrine und zeigte ihr eine dieser Jennifer-Aniston-Taschen, die sehr populär sind. Ich erklärte ihr, dass es diese Taschen in verschiedenen Grössen und Materialien gibt, so wie ich das immer tue. Sie blickte auf ein Gestell hinter mir. Weit oben. Darauf aus­gestellt war die 35000-Franken-Krokotasche. Ich sagte ihr, dass es dieselbe Tasche sei wie die, die ich gerade in der Hand hielt. Nur dass sie viel teurer sei. Ich könne ihr gerne noch andere Taschen zeigen. Oprah Winfrey behauptete im US-Fernsehen, Sie hätten ihr die Tasche aus rassistischen Gründen nicht ausgehändigt.
 Das ist absolut nicht wahr! Ich fragte sie sogar, ob sie die Tasche genauer anschauen wolle. Frau Winfrey hat sich nochmals im Geschäft umgeblickt, aber nichts mehr gesagt. Dann ging sie mit ihrem Begleiter in den unteren Stock. Mein Kollege hat ihnen noch die Tür aufgehalten. Sie waren nicht einmal fünf Minuten bei uns im Geschäft. Warum macht Oprah Winfrey dann solche Anschuldigungen?
 Das weiss ich nicht! Sie ist so mächtig, und ich bin bloss eine Verkäuferin. Ich habe niemandem etwas zuleide getan. Ich verstehe auch nicht, weshalb sie das so gross im TV ausschlachten muss. Hätte sich alles so zugetragen, wie sie behauptet: Warum hat sie sich dann nicht am nächsten Tag an der Hochzeit von Tina Turner bei Trudie Götz beschwert? Meine Chefin war ja dort ebenfalls zu Gast. Ich verstehe es nicht. Sie hätten zu ihr gesagt: «Sie wollen diese Tasche nicht sehen. Sie ist zu teuer. Die können Sie sich nicht leisten», sagt Winfrey.
Das stimmt nicht. Das ist absurd. So etwas würde ich zu einem Kunden nie sagen. Wirklich nicht! Gute Manieren und Höflichkeit sind das A und O in diesem Geschäft. Was würden Sie Oprah Winfrey sagen?
Ich würde mich entschuldigen. Es war ein Missverständnis. Ich habe Frau Winfrey sicher nicht absichtlich beleidigen wollen. Ich hoffe, dieser Albtraum ist bald zu Ende.

For non-German-speakers, she says that she started showing her Jennifer-Aniston bags, and then Oprah asked about the crocodile version, and the shop assistant answered it was the same, just much more expensive. The journalist says that Oprah Winfrey has affirmed that she was not given the bag because of racial prejudice, which the shop assistant vehemently denies. She also says that she has never said that Oprah “could never afford” the bag, that politeness is the most important in this trade. She doesn’t know why Oprah tore her apart (ausschlachten) like that on TV. When asked what she would tell Oprah, she says that she would apologise, that it was a misunderstanding, that she didn’t want to offend her. She wants this nightmare to be over. As stated in the title in German, she “hasn’t been able to sleep for days”.

The story has been taken up by the Daily Mail. There are direct translations from the original Sonntagsblick article and the content is similar (even though pushed to emphasise that Oprah may have lied), but the title has radically changed. From “I haven’t been able to sleep for days”, it is now “‘Oprah’s a liar’: Sales assistant in Swiss racist handbag row denies telling TV host that she could not view item because she couldn’t afford it”. Now, what you need to know is that people who write headlines and titles in newspapers are not the same who write the articles. Besides the “Chinese whisper” phenomenon across news outlets, it also happens within news outlets. For  a headline, you don’t want nuance, you want a punchline, and for that you emphasise conflict, or drama.

Finally, the website Gawker has re-used the story of the Daily Mail – and some Google translation of the original Sonntagsblick article – with a new title: “Swiss Shop Clerk Says Oprah “Cannibalized Her” With Racism Charge”. Now the term “cannibalized” seems to be a translation of the German “aussschlachten” of the original article (but ausschlachten is also used for cars). The difference between “cannibalized” and “tore apart” is that the former reinforces the racist picture that has been constructed for this shop assistant, as if she talked about Oprah Winfrey as a cannibal just like those African tribes in Allan Quatermain’s movies. So this is how you transform an interview where the shop employee says she cannot sleep into one where she calls Oprah Winfrey a Liar and a Cannibal.

The Swiss Apartheid


This week, Switzerland has been presented as the new country of apartheid. On Wednesday, international media outlets reported that the Federal Office for Migration had agreed exclusion rules with the town of Bremgarten in the Canton of Zurich for its new national centre for asylum seekers. Asylum seekers sheltered in that small town would not be allowed to access a number of public spaces, such as the swimming pool and the school. The town’s mayor justified these rules by “security grounds”, to prevent conflict and “guard against possible drug use”. The head of the federal migration office has said that its services had agreed to these rules to ensure “peaceful coexistence” between residents and asylum seekers. On top of this, Oprah Winfrey revealed yesterday on Larry King that she had been a victim of racism in Switzerland too. When she asked to see a 35’000 CHF bag in an upmarket shop in Zurich, she was told that the bag was “too expensive for her”. This is clearly a PR disaster. Some have argued that “tourists to Switzerland should be aware of new apartheid type policies”. I was interviewed yesterday on a radio show asking whether “the most neutral country in Europe is also the most racist“.

My answer would be no, and far from it. Switzerland has admitted more immigrants than any other European country of similar size over the last 50 years. Switzerland has one of the highest shares of immigrants amongst its population in Europe. In 2011, 23% of residents did not have Swiss citizenship. This high proportion is partly due to the fact that access to Swiss citizenship is fairly restrictive, and the conditions vary significantly across cantons, but admission policy has been very liberal by any standard. During the last 50 years, about 2 million people have migrated to Switzerland from abroad, or were born in Switzerland to immigrant parents. Without any immigration, Switzerland would now have 30% fewer inhabitants, which is a  bigger proportion than “traditional” immigration countries such as the US, Canada or Australia. Immigration is the main contribution to demographic growth (there are 2.5 times more immigrations than births). Switzerland also accepts a fairly high share of asylum seekers in relation to its population. It counts one asylum seeker per 332 inhabitants, whereas the European average is one per 625. If the Swiss were so racist and xenophobic, why would they accept so many migrants, most of them integrating very successfully?

Now of course, everything is not rosy. It is difficult to say whether what happened to Oprah Winfrey was a blatant case of racism from the news reports that I have read. Most normal people cannot afford a 35’000 CHF handbag, so the shop assistant may have just assumed she’s not part of the 0,001% of people who would spend that ridiculous sum of money for a handbag.  It is true, however, that Switzerland surely does have a racism problem which affects black people, but also other nationalities, and I don’t think it is worse than elsewhere. A few years ago, Swiss public TV produced a documentary which followed a Senegalese journalist equipped with a hidden camera while he was applying for jobs, seeking to rent a flat or even enter a club in a number of towns in French-speaking Switzerland. The behaviour of some people was really quite appalling. A study commissioned by the Swiss national commission against racism also pointed to a number of problems for black people. Discrimination is not really targeted at Black or ethnic minorities, but also affects European migrants. Another study of ethnic discrimination on the labour market pointed out that the most discriminated minority were (white) people from Kosovo in German-speaking Switzerland. I am not really familiar with comparative data on this, but I wonder if Switzerland is really worse than other countries. Nothing like the abuse that Cecile Kyenge has received has happened in Switzerland.

The Bremgarten case should  been seen against the background anti-immigration turn in Swiss immigration policy (as I tried to argue here) that has started in the 1990s with the rise of the xenophobic Swiss people party. This anti-immigration turn, however, has taken place elsewhere as well. In Switzerland, the Schweizerische Volkspartei – something like the local UKIP – has become the biggest party in parliament, and other parties have partly followed suit on its immigration policy positions out of fear of losing even more voters. Most immigration reforms in recent years have involved some  form of toughening, especially in the domain of asylum. What is interesting is that parties  have tried to show a tough stance in domains that have a marginal economic significance such as asylum or naturalizations. Right-wing parties have continuously toughened asylum and citizenship rules in recent years, but have been very reluctant to seek curbs in the free movement of workers with the EU, which is the main channel of immigration to Switzerland. In this way, they seek to please voters by hitting weak groups (asylum seekers) while not alienating business interests who are highly dependent on foreign (EU) labour.

Beside, there is little chance that the Bremgarten rules could stand a challenge at the Swiss constitutional court. It is not the first time that city councils want to enforce discriminatory rules for foreigners. Emmen, in canton Luzern, had introduced a naturalization procedure which provided for voters to decide on citizenship applications. Voters would receive a booklet with pictures and short biographies of individuals and families who wanted to become Swiss, and could decide on a “yes” or a “no”. Research carried out on this has shown that decisions were clearly discriminatory against certain nationalities; application from people from Turkey or Kosovo were systematically refused independently of their level of integration or language skills. However, these rules were ruled as unconstitutional by the Swiss Federal Court, and had to be withdrawn.

More generally, these exclusion rules are an attempt to deal with the well-known “NIMBY” syndrome (not in my backyard). This has been extensively analyzed for nuclear plants, airports or other things that countries need, but that people would rather not have next to their own home. People may favour open asylum policies, but many may not be too enthusiastic about having a centre next to their house with 300 people who are not allowed to work, do not speak the local language and have often experienced war or other disasters. As local authorities need to accept the establishment of these centers on their territory, there are negotiations between local communities and the federal level, and the “apartheid” rules are part of that.

The rules that have been agreed in Bremgarten are quite disgraceful (and probably impossible to enforce), but managing asylum requests is a fairly dirty business in general, and a business that most people ignore, or want to ignore. While Bremgarten doesn’t let asylum seekers use the public swimming pool, Australia has relocated its detention centers to remote islands in the pacific, where its own national legislation does not apply. In the UK, as far as I understand, people awaiting decisions on their asylum requests are routinely detained in prison-like facilities managed by private companies such as G4S. Sometimes they are killed in dubious circumstances, like Jimmy Mubenga.

I have met Pre-distribution. It Wears Clogs, Eats Chocolate, and Works Part-Time.


Predistribution” is Labour’s new policy buzzword. It’s been all over the news. Policy Network has events and publications about it, the BBC talks about it, Ed Milliband talks about it, David Cameron ridicules it. Predistribution is supposed to be the new silver bullet for the centre-left, the agenda that will both create social justice and appeal to voters. But how would it work in the real world?

The traditional tool advocated by the left to ensure more equality has been re-distribution. Basically, you let the market do its thing, tax it, and use cash transfers to redistribute the revenues to the poor. The problem with redistribution is that it can never fully compensate for the externalities that the market creates. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to sell politically, especially in countries like the United Kingdom. In the UK, the middle class doesn’t really have an interest in redistribution because most social schemes are means-tested, and benefits are mainly targeted at the poor only. If you lose your job, you’ll be entitled to Jobseekers’ allowance (56£ or 71£ a week) independently of your previous income. In fact, the drop between unemployment benefits and middle class incomes is so big that the middle class cannot really count on the welfare state as a safety net. They pay for it but don’t get much in return, which tends to create a hostile attitude towards it despite its residual features. As a result, even left-wing politicians are not so keen on it. For instance, Ed Milliband recently said that he would stick to the welfare cap introduced by the coalition. This is what Swedish sociologists Korpi and Palme called the paradox of redistribution: the more you target benefits at the poor to reduce inequalities, the less you actually reduce them.

Pre-distribution, by contrast, seeks to reduce inequalities within the market, in order to lower the need for redistribution. Because “mopping up” after the market through taxes and transfers is subject to political backlash, you need to get the market to distribute wealth more equally in the first place. The policies needed to make pre-distribution possible, however, are not very clear. Hacker emphasises “getting the macro-economy right”, ensuring “quality public services”, and “discovering a new set of countervailing powers in the market”. As far as one can tell, pre-distribution is a project whose policies still need to be invented. But does it exist in the real world?

Pre-transfer, pre-tax income inequality, 1979-2005

Source: Kenworthy 2009 (

According to data from the Luxemburg Income Study, there are two countries where pre-tax, pre-transfer market inequalities have either decreased or stayed at particularly low levels between 1979 and 2005: the Netherlands and Switzerland (Figure 1). By contrast to Scandinavian countries, which rely quite heavily on taxes and transfers to fight poverty, the Netherlands and – especially – Switzerland do not rely that much on redistribution. In fact, due to strong regressive elements in its transfer and tax system, Switzerland hardly redistributes at all, on par with the US, and its market outcomes are fairly equal in the first place.

In a forthcoming chapter co-authored with Jelle Visser, we outline the mix of policies that have allowed these two countries to achieve low levels of inequality without the high taxes and transfers found in Scandinavia. In a nutshell, the recipe is a combination of high female employment underpinned by access to part-time work, and welfare and skill production regimes which lift incomes in the bottom half. They are good examples of what Kenworthy calls the high-employment road to low inequality, a variant of predistribution.

First, you need high employment rates. The rise of inequality in the West has been underpinned by an increase in the number of high-earners with two incomes, and an increase in the number of low-earners with only one income, or no income at all. These, in turn, need cash transfers. If you reduce the number of households with no or only one income by boosting the employment rate, then you reduce market inequalities. The main tool used to do this in the Netherlands and Switzerland has been part-time employment. These two countries have the two highest proportions of part-time employment in the OECD, and among the highest  female employment rates. These two things go hand-in-hand: since they don’t have the publicly subsidized childcare facilities available in Scandinavian countries, part-time employment has been the main channel for women to access employment. For this, however, you need childcare which makes work pay. If their wages are lower than the cost of childcare, it makes little sense for one of the parents to work.

Second, you need institutions which lift up incomes in the bottom tier of the labour market. This can be done either with earnings-related unemployment insurance which provides for higher reservation wages, a greater role for collective bargaining, or – probably more importantly – greater collective investment in occupational skills. What underpins income inequalities in the UK is the prevalence of a low-skill, low-wage, low-productivity service sector caused by 30 years of de-regulation. There has been a massive expansion of higher education, but skills at the bottom have lagged behind. In the construction sector, for instance, a large part of the workforce is outsourced, formally self-employed to bypass social security contributions, and craftsmen have to be sourced from abroad because companies don’t provide training. In countries like Switzerland or the Netherlands, by contrast, vocational training and apprenticeship systems ensure a higher level of skills at the bottom end of the labour market, and therefore higher wages. Vocational training also provides for particularly low levels of youth unemployment. In the UK, low means-tested benefits lead jobseekers to accept any job as fast as possible, even at lower wages. In continental Europe, earnings-related benefits give more leeway to select better jobs, ensure a better allocation of workers, and prevent wages below the living wage.

These measures do not involve an actual redistribution of wealth, but rather ensure a more equal distribution of it within the market. Because low wages in the UK eventually cost massive amounts of public money through tax credits, better skills at the bottom and easier channels for women’s employment could also be implemented in a context of austerity. Of course, the Dutch and Swiss social models should not be idealized. Dutch households now have the highest mortgage debt in Europe. Austerity policies have now partly undermined some of the policies (e.g. childcare) that had allowed for the employment boom of the 1990s and 2000s. Swiss employment success relies partly on very high levels of immigration which have planted the seeds for the strongest radical right party in Europe. But since the high tax/high transfer policies of Scandinavian countries seem difficult to implement elsewhere, some of their “predistribution” policies may be a more realistic path to follow.