The population debate must not be defined by immigration

A relentless focus on net migration disguises the real challenges around population growth.

Today’s parliamentary debate on population is really about immigration. This is both because net migration is a significant driver of UK population increases, and because reduced immigration is the key demand of the e-petition which sparked the debate, and of those proposing the motion. It is not clear whether those who are promoting the "no to 70m" proposition are themselves really driven by a concern about population increases and their effects; or whether they are really more concerned about immigration (or about particular kinds of immigration). It certainly seems unlikely that they would be in favour of more immigration if British emigration suddenly increased, or the British birth rate suddenly dropped.

In effect, this is a debate about the government’s net migration target, which itself only really makes sense if the driving concern is population. The most recent estimates suggest that net migration is running at well over 200,000 a year. The government’s target is to reduce that to less than 100,000 a year. Those who support the "no to 70m" proposition are calling for net migration of less than 40,000 a year (and, in many cases, for net migration of zero).

Leaving aside the fact that the existing net migration target is looking impossible to meet, that in the current context, net migration could only be cut to the levels demanded by the "no to 70m" camp at huge economic cost, and that those supporting the motion have no clear account of the policies that would be required to cut net migration so drastically, it is worth considering the population and net migration debate on its own merits.

The argument that any particular population level is a problem per se is clearly incoherent (why 70 million? Why not 80 million, or 40 million (as called for by Population Matters)?). The more sensible debate is about population increase (pace of change) and distribution, and the attendant issues. Those issues are real ones – housing, congestion, the allocation of funds to public services. But none are well served by a policy driven entirely by a net migration (or population) target, for at least two reasons.

The first is that a focus on overall net migration (or total population) can hide all sorts of different trends with different impacts and effects.  For example, if immigration of ten million a year was matched by emigration of ten million a year then net migration would be zero, but the effects of the resulting population "churn" would almost certainly be negative. Similarly, if the emigration of one million high-skilled workers was matched by the immigration of one million low-skilled workers, then the UK might well be worse off as a result.

The second is that most of the impacts of population growth are local or regional, rather than national. A national net migration target does nothing to address local or regional population pressures.  If London received net international migration of one million and Scotland received net international emigration of one million in the same year, then net migration would be zero but the consequences for both London and Scotland would likely be negative.

We should have a political and policy debate about population. It should be a debate about the rate of population growth and the distribution of population in the UK. It should be a debate about housing, and transport, and energy, and water, and public services, and how we manage an ageing population, and any number of other things. It should not be a debate about whether the UK population should be 70 million (or 60 million, or 40 million).

We should also have a political and policy debate about immigration. It should be a debate about the pace and nature of migration flows to and from the UK. It should be about jobs and wages, and economic growth, and public services, and culture, and community, and a whole range of other issues. It should not be a debate about whether net migration to the UK should be 100,000 a year (or 40,000, or zero).

None of this is to deny the connection between migration and population, of course, but when the population debate becomes all about immigration, and the immigration debate becomes all about population, then both are limited and unproductive.

Sarah Mulley is Associate Director for Migration, Trade and Development at IPPR

Parliament will today debate a motion calling for measures to ensure the UK population does not rise above 70 million. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.