How to lose the battle and win the war for immigration

Skilled migration isn't that much better economically – but it's a lot easier to get through politically.

Sunny Hundal points out that the public are pretty solidly anti-immigration, and Chris Dillow gets in a funk about it:

Several things make me fear that an evidence-based approach won't suffice to change people's minds:

  • Hostility to immigration does not come merely from the minority who lose out in the labour market. People from higher social classes and the retired are as opposed to immigration as others.
  • There's little hope of attitudes changing as older "bigots" die off. The Yougov poll found that 68% of 18-24 year-olds support the Tories' immigration cap.
  • Antipathy to immigration has been pretty stable (in terms of polling if not the violence of its expression) since at least the 1960s.
  • There's an echo mechanism which helps stabilize opinion at a hostile level. Politicians and the media, knowing the public are opposed to immigration, tell them what they want to hear and - a few bromides aside - don't challenge their opinion.

This, more than the economic arguments, is why the focus on "high-skilled immigration" is important.

After all, economically, immigration is good. One of the easiest shortcuts to growth is population growth, especially when that population growth comes in the form of people who arrive able to start working immediately. The canard about "benefit scrounging immigrants" is just that; and given many migrants return home long before retirement, even benefits which they may actually be eligible for aren't claimed.

Insofar as there are negative economic repercussions from such a policy, they would mainly limited to a potential downwards squeeze on low-skilled wages. But, as Dillow points out, we already have an answer for policies which help the nation overall while hurting those worst off: redistribution of wealth. And living wage policies, and stronger enforcement of them, would help too.

But, as Dillow bemoans, none of these points help win the argument. The record seems to show that talking about the facts doesn't change much, and immigration attitudes are remarkably set in stone.

Loosening the restrictions on high-skilled immigration, though, ought to be a much easier thing to implement. It would have much less of an effect on the overall figure, and would still result in large increases in welfare. But it remains a far more politically acceptable thing to push for. Even some of the attacks on high-skilled immigration – like the crackdown on student visas or the increased hurdles foreign graduates have to jump over to use their (still largely publicly funded) skills in the UK – only became popular once they were rephrased as attacks on low-skilled immigration. So the student visa discussion, for instance, was focused on "fraudulent" language colleges, rather than accredited universities which are also hit.

Hopefully there will still be a genuine change in attitude. I still look forward to a day where we accept that discrimination against someone based on where they were born is as unacceptable as discrimination against someone based on what gender they are. But until then, if we want more and better immigration, we may have to sneak it in under the radar.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.