The government has lost the economic argument around immigration

It now straddles two contradictory claims.

Gus O'Donnell, the former head of the civil service, has written in an article in the Times that the government is "shooting itself in the foot" with its desire to lower immigration.

He writes (£):

A big barrier to growth is an immigration policy that deprives the UK of skilled workers in certain disciplines. Lord Heseltine, while at pains to avoid criticising the Government, clearly sympathises with the difficulties that businesses face in recruiting these workers.

O'Donnell's criticism piles on the pressure the government is facing to justify its immigration policy in economic, as well as just populist, terms. As he mentioned, Heseltine's review, No stone unturned (pdf), also tactfully steers a course rather different to that currently being pursued by the Home Office.

Heseltine writes:

It goes almost without saying that the ideal solution is a well-managed immigration system that is open and welcoming to those who can address our skills gaps and add value to the economy, yet is unattractive to those who do not have and would not get permission to be here. This is easier said than done at a time of tough manpower constraints in the public sector.

While it "almost goes without saying", that is not actually the government's own strategy. The Conservatives are locked into a damaging attempt to bring net migration in under an arbitrary cap; and worse, they have no power to affect the biggest single contributor to that number, which is intra-EU migration.

As a result, the party is forced to attack the small sliver of migration they can have an effect on. But unskilled, non-EU migration had already been extremely constrained by the previous government, so to limit immigration any further, skilled migration came under fire. Even with new strict measures on visas, the government is losing the fight miserably. Its target is net migration of 100,000 people; the latest figures show that number is 216,000.

Politically the government is failing. It has set itself a challenge which it will not – cannot – meet. That alone would be a reason for abandoning the aim now, nobly accepting defeat, even if that figure weren't one which no sane government ought to try to achieve.

Last week's Economist leader laid out the problem the economy faces as a result of this policy in stark terms:

The country has, in effect, installed a “keep out” sign over the white cliffs of Dover. Even as Mr Cameron defends the City of London as a global financial centre, and takes planeloads of business folk on foreign trips, his government ratchets up measures that would turn an entrepôt into a fortress. In the past two years the Tories have made it much harder for students and foreign workers and family members to enter and settle in the country. Britain is not only losing the war for global talent, it is scarcely competing. More people now leave to take up job offers in other countries than come the other way.

In fact, even the nascent pro-immigration voices on the right don't take the argument far enough. While many of them are content to make the argument that immigration represents a favourable trade-off between unemployment and growth, few take the extra step of point out that immigration can help with both employment and growth. This argument involves tackling head-on the pervasive "lump of labour" fallacy – the idea that there are a fixed number of jobs, and if a foreigner gets one, then a Briton can't.

Forbes blogger Adam Ozimek writes about Silicon Valley, where a similar argument is taking place after a technology journalist, Robert X Cringley, has criticised skilled-migration visas:

Imagine the worst case scenario in Cringely’s mind occurs, and a foreign worker takes a job at a 30% discount, and a native worker who could have had the job has to settle for a lower paying job. To understand the impact on U.S. workers you have to look beyond this worker who has had his job “stolen”, and must look at what economists call the general equilibrium effect. Here are other things that happen: the H1-B worker buys or rents a home, and a landlord of home seller benefits, overall, new houses will be built, meaning construction workers benefit. The H1-B worker shops at a grocery store, which employs workers, and sells goods made by farmers who also employ workers. See how this goes?

The economic case for limiting migration is thoroughly lost. At best, the government is now facing the risk that this argument filters into the popular perception; at worst, it is in the position of encouraging a popular attitude which is simply incorrect.

Placards at a protest against the decision to strip London Met university of its ability to sponsor international study. 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: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.