Brown is right to challenge immigration hysteria

The Tories' plan for an annual limit remains unworkable.

It was a relief to hear Gordon Brown declare in his speech about immigration that he would not allow people to "scaremonger" on the subject.

The Prime Minister rightly pointed to figures showing that net migration has fallen significantly since 2007. As the graph below shows, net migration fell from 233,000 in 2007 to 163,000 in 2008.

Official figures for 2009 have not been published, but early indications suggest that there has been a further fall to 147,000. The recession prompted many east European migrants to return home and the overall number migrating from Britain has reached a 17-year high of more than 400,000.

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Despite this trend, the Tories remain committed to their absurd plan to place an annual limit on immigration. David Cameron has promised to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" per year, a level not seen since the days of the Major government. But as Brown rightly argued, this populist policy is "arbitrary and unworkable".

For a start, Cameron cannot limit immigration from within the European Union without restricting the free movement of labour and throwing the UK's continued membership into doubt. His policy also ignores the 39,000 people who come to the UK on spousal visas after marrying British citizens abroad.

No party can afford not to make immigration a central issue at the election. A recent YouGov poll of 57 marginal seats found that only the economy matters more to voters in these areas.

The poll also found that 44 per cent of respondents in Labour-held marginals would be more likely (23 per cent much more likely) to vote Tory if Cameron pledged to reduce net migration to 50,000 a year.

But if Labour exposes Cameron's pledge for the hollow promise that it is, it need not lose any votes over the subject.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.