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.

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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.