What would a progressive immigration policy look like?

The Conservatives' net migration target is wrong but the centre-left cannot ignore the question of numbers.

Eric Pickles’s comments about Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, followed by today’s intervention by Migration Watch on the same issue, have sparked another lively media debate about migration policy.

The government have based their migration policy on a target to reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year, one they seem likely to miss, not least because they cannot limit migration from elsewhere in the EU. Ed Miliband has suggested that Labour’s approach to migration will go beyond the confines of immigration rules (as it must, in light of EU migration). His interventions in the debate have focused on how economic and integration policy can respond to migration.

But underneath the regular political and policy arguments lies a more fundamental debate about what migration policy should be seeking to achieve. The Conservatives’ answer is that the purpose of migration policy is to reduce net migration. That is appealingly simple, but bad policy and bad politics.So what might a centre-left alternative look like?

The first thing to say is that the most fundamental responsibility of governments of all political hues should be to ensure that migration policy is democratically accountable, governed by the rule of law (including human rights law), and effectively implemented. Of course, this is easier said than done, and is sometimes uncomfortable for those on the left, involving as it does both difficult conversations with the public and highly sensitive decisions about individual cases involving vulnerable people.

Beyond this very basic responsibility, there is plenty of room for debate about what governments should try to achieve with migration policy. Many people would agree that one important objective should be to secure economic benefits for the UK. Indeed, this was arguably the driving motivation behind much of Labour’s immigration policy when in government, and has been a key criticism of the coalition’s approach.

But a centre-left or progressive migration policy must aim to do more than simply respond to the needs of business. Migration policy must be part of a strategy to form the economy we want, not just a tool to service the needs of the one that we have. A progressive migration policy must also seek to manage the cultural and social impacts of migration, take particular care to avoid increasing inequality, and pay particular attention to the impacts on vulnerable groups. This means tackling migration’s impacts not only through immigration rules, but also through wider social policy. Labour did not do enough of this in government, particularly in response to rapid migration from Poland and other countries after 2004.

However, there is a risk that this kind of approach to migration policy loses touch with the core metric that concerns the public: the impact of policy on migration flows. This was the trap that Labour fell into after 2004, when dramatic increases in immigration exposed a policy approach that seemed to the public to be much to laissez-faire on the issue of numbers.

The Conservatives' net migration target is wrong (not least because it over-simplifies and ignores much about migration flows that is important), but that does not mean that anyone in the migration debate can ignore the question of numbers. It is not enough to set immigration rules and then take no view on the pace and pattern of migration flows that result. Even those who believe that migration has generally been a good thing for the UK should accept that this does not mean that more migration would necessarily be even better: both costs and benefits are non-linear.

People on all sides of the immigration debate should agree that accurate and timely data on the scale, nature and pattern of migration flows are essential for good policymaking. This data is something the UK currently lacks, which makes the current debate about net migration levels even less productive. It is also reasonable to expect politicians and policymakers to respond quickly to rapid changes in migration. The right response will not always be about the immigration rules (indeed, as with EU migration, there are many circumstances when it cannot be), but the public are right to expect government to take steps to manage the impacts of migration.

The right approach to migration policy is necessarily more complicated then the Conservative’s net migration target. But it is also common sense: have a democratic debate, set fair rules and enforce them, increase the benefits (economic and social) of migration while managing the costs, pay attention to impacts on the most vulnerable, and keep a weather eye on the numbers.

The devil is in the detail, of course, but perhaps if everyone in the migration debate could agree on the question, we would get better answers.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR

She tweets as @sarahmulley

Home Secretary Theresa May makes a speech on immigration at Policy Exchange on December 12, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

Photo: Getty
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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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