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.

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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.