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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.