Where now for the immigration debate?

The coalition's political approach is at risk of unravelling, but genuine policy challenges remain.

The economic impacts of migration, and of immigration policy, are back in the spotlight. Today, Gus O’Donnell accused the government of "shooting itself in the foot" on growth by restricting skilled immigration. Yesterday’s two big economic reports, from Michael Heseltine and the Resolution Foundation’s Commission on Living Standards also considered the issue from different perspectives.

O’Donnell and Heseltine both highlight the potentially negative impacts on growth of immigration policy that restricts (either in principle or in practice) the ability of businesses to access a global pool of talent. Meanwhile, the Commission on Living Standards, in an exhaustive study of the causes of the "wage squeeze" that has affected low and middle earners in the UK, concludes that immigration has not been a significant factor.

So if immigration is important for growth, and doesn’t have significant effects on low and middle earners (the evidence for both these claims is strong), what’s the problem? Why does the government persist with an immigration policy that appears to make no economic sense, and why does the opposition not offer a more straightforward criticism of it? There is sometimes a feeling on the "progressive" side of the argument that this is simply a problem of politics and public opinion – if only the economic evidence could be better communicated and understood, then the path would be clear for a more "rational" (and, by implication, more liberal) immigration policy. This is wrong, for at least two reasons.

The first is that there are genuine policy challenges with respect to immigration policy that need to be addressed – this is not simply a case of politics and public opinion muddying the crystalline waters of economic evidence.

The impacts of migration on the labour market and the economy are complex. Although the finding that migration has had little impact on wages or unemployment is robust, there are some important caveats which need to be considered. Too little is known about the distributional impacts of migration. The Commission on Living Standards is right that even at the bottom end of the labour market, the impacts of migration on wages and employment seem to be very small, but this does not rule out more significant impacts on specific groups of workers (for example in some sectors in particular local areas). Nor does it take into account the fact that migration (including skilled migration) has been part of an economic model that has seen wages at the top end of the labour market become disconnected from those at the bottom. Pleas from the City to be able to bring in more highly-skilled (and highly-paid) migrants may make sense from the point of view of economic growth, but we should take seriously the argument that some kinds of growth are better than others, and that migration policy needs to be part of that discussion.

Migration also poses a range of complex policy challenges beyond labour markets and the economy, particularly at the local level – the rapid population change that can result does affect housing, public services, and community cohesion, whatever the economic benefits.

The second reason, which Heseltine recognised in his report yesterday, is that migration policy must have "public assent". This is not just an argument for better communications. Progressives and economic liberals may find some aspects of public opinion on this issue uncomfortable, and it is always open to them to try to shift the terms of debate – but the right response can never be simply to ignore the views of the electorate. Arguments over migration cannot be left to experts or economists but must be shaped through democratic debate and choice.

So where does this leave migration policy and politics? There are three key challenges that policymakers and politicians must face up to. The first is that migration must be situated in a wider policy debate about the economy (and housing, welfare, and communities). Ed Miliband has understood this, and Labour is showing promising signs of tackling migration policy in this way. The second is that many of the real policy challenges are local ones, and need to be addressed at the local level – something that will require a big change of approach in a policy area that has traditionally been highly centralised. The government’s net migration target is about as far away from the nuanced local policy mix that is needed as it is possible to get. In light of this, the third challenge presents a paradox – although there are real policy challenges at the local level, the public don’t (on the whole) feel that immigration is a problem in their own local communities, although a large majority do feel that it is a problem for the country as a whole.

So politicians are faced with a national political problem which is cast in terms of very simple choices, and a need for nuanced and local policy solutions. The government has opted to play the political game rather than the policy one – a strategy that is at risk of unravelling under the weight of its own contradictions, and the kinds of critiques that have emerged this week. Labour are engaging seriously with the policy questions, but are still in search of a narrative on immigration – "one nation" Labour is as good a starting point as any, but much more work is needed given the party’s difficult recent history on this issue.

David Cameron watches passengers go through immigration control during a visit to Heathrow terminal 5. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

Getty
Show Hide image

How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.