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.

Show Hide image

Can Nicola Sturgeon keep Scotland in the EU?

For Sturgeon, Scotland's rightful place is in the EU. If that means independence, so be it.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, when Remain voters were still nursing their hangovers, a meme began to circulate on Scottish Facebook pages. It was an image of Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, her arms outspread, with a simple message: “F***in’ calm doon. Am oan it.”

At a time when British politicians are mired in the kind of chaos seen once in a generation, Sturgeon has emerged as a figure of calm. While her fellow Remain campaigners were speaking tearfully to news cameras, she addressed EU citizens, telling them: “You remain welcome here. Scotland is your home and your contribution is valued.”

When Boris Johnson declared, “Project Fear is over,” she retorted on Twitter, “Project Farce has now begun.” Her message has been retweeted more than 6,000 times. Faisal Islam, the political editor of Sky News, remarked on air that she seemed to be “the person with the most thought-through plan”.

Sturgeon now presents herself as Scotland’s anchor to Europe. Yet critics view her actions as those of a veteran independence campaigner seizing a chance denied to her by the Scottish referendum two years ago. In reality, she is working for both objectives.

It is hard to imagine now but the Scottish National Party was once suspicious of the idea of an independent Scotland in Europe. The idea took hold thanks to Jim Sillars, the Labour MP who led the 1976 breakaway that formed the Scottish Labour Party. He defected to the SNP in the early 1980s and became one of its strongest pro-EU advocates. The promise of an independent state within a larger framework was soon a mainstay of the party’s campaigns. The 1997 manifesto promised voters “the restoration of self-confidence and the creation of a modern democracy in the mainstream of European life”.

In the early years of the Scottish Parliament, Sturgeon’s approach to the EU was one of a negotiator, not an idealist. In 2003, she put forward a motion that the Scottish Executive should oppose the reduction of Scottish seats in the European Parliament from eight to seven. “Scotland, with no seat on the Council of Europe, no commissioners and fewer MEPs than comparably sized independent member states, has little enough influence in the EU,” she argued.

Her interest in representation emerged again in 2005 when she described an EU proposal on software patents as “a serious threat” to developers. She noted that: “There was apparently no Scottish minister at the Council to represent Scottish interests, the UK instead being represented by an unelected member of the House of Lords.”

Sturgeon’s commitment to work with the EU has not always been reciprocated. In the Scottish referendum, as deputy first minister, she promised the continuity of EU membership. Yet José Manuel Barroso, the then president of the European Commission, said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible”, for an independent Scotland to join. Some consider his statement to have been crucial to the success of the No campaign.

When the EU referendum arrived, Sillars, the architect of the SNP’s Europhile agenda, criticised the “love affair” that he believed his party was indulging in and joined the campaign for Brexit. Sturgeon made a different calculation. She threw herself into the Remain campaign, though she was careful not to stand alongside David Cameron. She played down the Scottish independence line – when asked, in the run-up to the vote, if she was a unionist, she described herself as “an enthusiastic European”.

She turned her reputation as a “nippie sweetie” to her advantage. Once viewed as a dour machine politician, now Sturgeon was warm to voters while cutting Boris Johnson down to size. There was no need to scaremonger over Europe, she said. A positive campaign was enough. There is no doubt that she tapped in to the popular feeling: 62 per cent of voters in Scotland opted to remain in the EU, compared to 48 per cent in the UK as a whole. Every local authority area north of the border voted Remain.

As the referendum results rolled in, she prepared to go it alone. “There are no rules,” Sturgeon told Andrew Marr. “The status quo we voted for doesn’t exist.” To her, Scotland’s rightful place is in the EU and if that requires independence, so be it.

She offered to meet Brussels diplomats. She contacted EU institutions. She put forward a motion in the Scottish Parliament demanding “the Scottish government to have discussions” in pursuit of “protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU”.

Yet Barroso’s warnings may come back to haunt Sturgeon. She has always painted a picture of an independent Scotland in Europe as one that is nevertheless tied to the British Isles. Its currency is the pound; Scots and the English move freely between Glasgow and Carlisle. EU member states may seize on her proposal, or use it as a way of repeating the rebuff of 2014. Sturgeon the nippie sweetie negotiator has her plan for a European Scotland. Now she must wait for Europe to answer. 

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies