Cameron sells Britain to the Indians

The PM softens his stance on immigration to encourage more skilled migrants from the subcontinent.

David Cameron has used a trip to India to promote British universities to potential applicants, assuring workers at Hindustan Unilever that there is "no limit" on the number of Indian students who can come to Britain. The promise is, however, conditional on a basic English qualification and the offer of a place.

The announcement is merely a restatement of existing policy, but underscores the difficulty the government is having reconciling two opposing aims.

On the one hand, it is trying to reduce immigration to the UK. Problematically, the target it has set itself — reducing net migration to below 100,000 people per year — is one it can't really affect directly. Around a third of net migration to the UK is made up of EU citizens, whose freedom of movement cannot legally be impaired. The most recent statistics available show a net inward migration of 76,000 EU citizens, against a total net migration of 166,000 people.

Similarly, one of the biggest downward pressures in net migration to the UK is emigration of British citizens. 151,000 British citizens left the UK in the year ending March 2012, and just 73,000 arrived in the same year. For opponents of migration who genuinely believe Britain is "full", encouraging British emigration may be a sensible proposal to reduce net migration; but for those with more nebulous concerns about "culture clashes", it's the last thing they would want.

Those intractable sources of migration increase the pressure for the government to use the only policy levers it does have: those affecting migration from non-EU countries. That is why, for instance, the Home Office launched an actual war on marriage on Valentine's day, arresting people in the registry office for "sham" marriages:



(Presumably those who thought same sex marriage was an assault on the institution will be speaking up about this literal assault shortly)

Similar pressure has been brought to bear on businesses wanting to hand out visas for work, and on students wanting to come to Britain to study. Even the American director of economics at Oxford University's Smith School finds himself at the behest of a British regime which is less than welcoming, prompting a letter to the Financial Times calling on David Cameron to "make good on the recent promise you made at Davos that 'Britain is back open for business'."

The problem is that, even as these last few avenues by which the government can control the rate of migration are squeezed as tightly as they can be, the economic situation is also making it painfully clear that they should be as wide-open as possible.

The only economic argument against immigration which holds any water is that low-skilled migration may depress the wages of the worst off in Britain, even as it boosts output overall. Such an argument leaves open the question of why the proper response to that isn't redistribution rather than restriction (as well as the more philosophical question of why it's valid to value some people's quality of life over others' based just on where they happened to be born), but even taken at face value, it says nothing about the virtues of restricting "high skilled" immigration.

And so, faced with a rather urgent need to boost the productive capacity of Britain, Cameron has started emphasising that latter aim. No longer is he telling potential overseas students "don't come here, it's cold and wet and you probably won't get any face-to-face teaching anyway"; instead, the UK as a source of high-quality learning and potential business investment gets touted on an overseas trip.

(There is also, of course, the fact that an influx of overseas students will do much to tide over the funding crisis in UK universities, as those students are some of the few who pay more than their education costs).

So don't be fooled into thinking that a mere "restatement" of policy is no new news. If it really does indicate the Government shifting its priorities from ensuring that "Britain is closed" to finally using immigration policy to boost the economy, it could be the biggest story of the week.

David Cameron travels on the Dehli Metro during his last visit, in 2006. 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.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation