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.

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Corbyn's supporters loved his principles. But he ditched them in the EU campaign

Jeremy Corbyn never wanted Remain to win, and every gutless performance showed that. Labour voters deserve better. 

“A good and decent man but he is not a leader. That is the problem.” This was just-sacked Hilary Benn’s verdict on Jeremy Corbyn, and he’s two-thirds right. Corbyn is not a leader, and if that wasn’t obvious before the referendum campaign, it should be now. If the Vice documentary didn’t convince you that Corbyn is a man who cannot lead – marked by both insubstantiality and intransigence, both appalling presentation and mortal vanity – then surely his botched efforts for Remain must have.

But so what. Even Corbyn’s greatest supporters don’t rate him as a statesman. They like him because he believes in something. Not just something (after all, Farage believes in something: he believes in a bleached white endless village fete with rifle-toting freemen at the gates) but the right things. Socialist things. Non-Blairite things. The things they believe in. And the one thing that the EU referendum campaign should absolutely put the lie to is any image of Corbyn as a politician of principle – or one who shares his party’s values.

He never supported Remain. He never wanted Remain to win, and every gutless performance showed that. Watching his big centrepiece speech, anyone not explicitly informed that Labour was pro-Remain would have come away with the impression that the EU was a corrupt conglomerate that we’re better off out of. He dedicated more time to attacking the institution he was supposed to be defending, than he did to taking apart his ostensive opposition. And that’s because Leave weren’t his opposition, not really. He has long wanted out of the EU, and he got out.

It is neither good nor decent to lead a bad campaign for a cause you don’t believe in. I don’t think a more committed Corbyn could have swung it for Remain – Labour voters were firmly for Remain, despite his feeble efforts – but giving a serious, passionate account of what what the EU has done for us would at least have established some opposition to the Ukip/Tory carve-up of the nation. Now, there is nothing. No sound, no fury and no party to speak for the half the nation that didn’t want out, or the stragglers who are belatedly realising what out is going to mean.

At a vigil for Jo Cox last Saturday, a Corbyn supporter told me that she hoped the Labour party would now unify behind its leader. It was a noble sentiment, but an entirely misplaced one when the person we are supposed to get behind was busily undermining the cause his members were working for. Corbyn supporters should know this: he has failed you, and will continue to fail you as long as he is party leader.

The longer he stays in office, the further Labour drifts from ever being able to exercise power. The further Labour drifts from power, the more utterly hopeless the prospects for all the things you hoped he would accomplish. He will never end austerity. He will never speak to the nation’s disenfranchised. He will achieve nothing beyond grinding Labour ever further into smallness and irrelevance.

Corbyn does not care about winning, because he does not understand the consequences of losing. That was true of the referendum, and it’s true of his attitude to politics in general. Corbyn isn’t an alternative to right-wing hegemony, he’s a relic – happy to sit in a glass case like a saint’s dead and holy hand, transported from one rapturous crowd of true believers to another, but somehow never able to pull off the miracles he’s credited with.

If you believe the Labour party needs to be more than a rest home for embittered idealists – if you believe the working class must have a political party – if you believe that the job of opposing the government cannot be left to Ukip – if you believe that Britain is better than racism and insularity, and will vote against those vicious principles when given a reason to; if you believe any of those things, then Corbyn must go. Not just because he’s ineffectual, but because he’s untrustworthy too.

Some politicians can get away with being liars. There is a kind of anti-politics that is its own exemplum, whose representatives tell voters that all politicians are on the make, and then prove it by being on the make themselves and posing as the only honest apples in the whole bad barrel. That’s good enough for the right-wing populists who will take us out of Europe but it is not, it never has been, what the Labour Party is. Labour needs better than Corbyn, and the country that needs Labour must not be failed again.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.