Is there such a thing as an ideal level of population?

Rather than yet another debate about immigration, let's have a proper debate about population growth

Many commentators predicted that immigration would lose political salience during 2011. Back in the spring, I explained here why I thought this unlikely. Economic downturns tend to heighten concerns about migrants competing for jobs, and exerting downward pressure on wages. Public spending cuts tend to sharpen debates around migrants adding to the pressure on public services, social housing in particular, and around migrants claiming benefits. Beyond the economic aspects, there is no sign of any decline in the sense that immigration is undermining or threatening our "way of life". And while neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats are keen to talk about immigration, the Conservative leadership clearly believe it has a role to play in handling the right-wing media, as well as those on the right of their own party who are unhappy with life in coalition.

Immigration hasn't been all good news for the Conservatives. Last month, they had their first experience of a political crisis driven by operational failings at the border. At the same time the Office of National Statistics confirmed that net immigration was the highest on record. Three quarters of people were already doubting that the Conservatives would deliver their pledge to cut net immigration to tens of thousands, and their lead on the issue has fallen to 13 per cent, half of where it was last summer, and eroded further by the recent crisis.

Net immigration -- total immigration, including British citizens, minus total emigration -- was always a slightly quixotic choice for an overall political target. As the ONS explained, while immigration has been stable since 2004, net immigration has fluctuated with rises and falls in emigration, which is even harder to control. It is tempting to conclude that the Conservatives have given themselves an unnecessary political problem. But to understand why they did it, we need to go back to a couple of years before the election, when the pressure group MigrationWatch were exerting a lot of influence on the immigration debate, mainly through the right wing media, and also through their parliamentary wing Balanced Migration, fronted by Frank Field and Nicholas Soames. Their narrative relied heavily on the idea of Britain as a "crowded island", a clever tactic for reassuring moderates that there was "nothing racist about opposing immigration" -- it was simply a question of numbers. If crowding is the primary issue, then net immigration is indeed the logical target.

But this also explains why, as some on the right are making sympathetic noises about cutting ministers some slack on immigration, MigrationWatch are redoubling their campaign. When the ONS released the latest population projections, suggesting that the number of people living in the UK will rise from 62.3 million to the totemic 70 million figure within twenty years, MigrationWatch responded with an e-petition calling for the government "to take all necessary steps to get immigration down to a level that will stabilise our population as close to the present level as possible." Backed by the Mail and Sun, the country's two biggest selling dailies, the requisite 100,000 signatures were gathered within a week, and a parliamentary debate is expected in the New Year.

But rather than yet another debate over immigration (during which you can safely assume that many participants will use up a good share of their time complaining about the fact that they aren't allowed to talk about it), we should take the petition at face value, and actually try to have a debate about population, and ideally one which is informed by a deeper sense of the facts.

As I pointed out when the e-petition was launched, the latest UN figures rank the UK as the 39th most crowded out of 196 nations, and 140th in terms of population growth. Although many of the most densely populated are small islands or city states, Japan, South Korea, Belgium, and the Netherlands would all remain more densely populated than the UK even if we hit 90 million, never mind 70 million. MigrationWatch complained that I "carefully chose the UK rather than England" in making this comparison, but -- besides the obvious points that their own petition focuses on UK population figures that talking about this "crowded island" implies we are talking about Scotland and Wales as well as England, and that immigration policy is set at the UK level -- the real problem for MigrationWatch is that as soon as we move away from debating immigration and population at the UK level, why stop at England? Why restrict ourselves to a single conversation about a geographic entity whose regions and cities vary so markedly in these respects?

For example, northerners are among the most concerned about immigration, and also very concerned about population growth and crowding, despite having the slowest rate of population growth in England, with many towns and districts shrinking. The latest ONS figures show that the north-east has around 300 people per square kilometer, just above the UK average, and a third lower than the south-east. London is obviously the densest, at 5,000 people per sq km (though this is not particularly high either, by international standards or London's own history), and unsurprisingly, Londoners are among the most concerned about crowding. But despite this, and despite also having the largest number and proportion of migrants, attitudes to immigration in London are by far the least negative. A recent survey found 46 per cent of Londoners think immigration needs to be reduced, compared to 75 to 80 per cent nationally. (This is not just for the obvious reason that immigrants are themselves the most positive about immigration: the same survey showed that Londoners who identified themselves as "white British" were also significantly less likely to support cuts to immigration than "white British" respondents elsewhere in the country.)

London's population has been growing steadily since 1988 -- after shrinking for several decades in the middle of the last century -- and this year's London Plan forecasts that the city will grow by around 1.2 million in the next twenty years. On average, there is still a net outflow to the rest of the UK of around 10,000 a year, but this is far outweighed by two other trends: immigration from overseas, and birth rate. In 2009, around 150,000 immigrants arrived to live in London -- around a third of the UK total -- with a net immigration figure of around 30,000. London also had more than double its fair share of the country's natural population growth, of around 80,000.

Is there such a thing as an ideal level of population, either for the UK, or for the north, or for London? How far should government -- at national level, or in London's case, the Mayor's office -- try to intervene in that? If we believe that government should have a population policy, should it restrict itself to a "one-club" policy of managing immigration, or should it also intervene in family planning -- and what about the upward trend in life expectancy? Less controversially and probably more usefully, how we should plan to deal with whatever rises are expected? Finally, as we welcome the seven billionth member of the human race, how do these national or local concerns fit in with global questions around population growth, migration, urbanisation, resource scarcity, emissions, and so on?

These are some of the questions that will be discussed, in a London context, at a debate which IPPR is holding on December 12th as part of the London Policy Conference. The debate will be chaired by the New Statesman's own Mehdi Hasan, with expert contributions on migration, demography, urban planning, and economics, as well as the Barking and Dagenham MP Jon Cruddas. We hope this will stimulate similar discussions in the north and elsewhere, in the run up to the parliamentary debate in the New Year.

Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at IPPR. Follow him on twitter @matt_cav_

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.