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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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