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
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR