New migration statistics should reassure on Bulgaria and Romania

Beyond the headlines, it's not all doom and gloom.

Beyond the headlines of falling net migration, today's statistics should offer some reassurance to those who are concerned about a mass influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants coming to the UK when transitional controls on their access to the UK labour market are lifted at the end of the year.

The number of migrants coming to the UK from the eight countries that joined the EU in 2004 (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) was down to 62,000 in the year to June 2012 - a reduction of 28 per cent compared to the year before, and down from a peak of well over 100,000 in 2007. Net migration (the difference between immigration and emigration) to the UK from these countries was down to 30,000 in the year to June 2012, down from a peak of almost 90,000 in 2007.

Part of this change is due to worsening economic conditions in the UK - there have been significant declines in immigration from the EU to the UK since the start of the financial crisis. But this isn't the only explanation - indeed the numbers of people coming to the UK from the countries that joined the EU in 2004 rose somewhat in 2009-10.

In fact, the rapid declines since 2011 seem to be accounted for by the opening up of labour markets across the rest of the EU from May 2011 - fewer people from Poland and other countries are now coming to the UK because they have more opportunities to work in Germany and other countries.

In 2004, the UK, Sweden and Ireland were the only EU countries to provide nationals of new member states with immediate full access to their labour markets. But lessons have been learned from the large (and largely unpredicted) migration to the UK that followed - when the UK fully opens its labour market to Romania and Bulgaria next year, it will do so alongside the whole of the rest of the EU (indeed a number of EU countries have already opened up).

It's almost impossible to predict how many Bulgarians and Romanians will come to the UK in 2014, but the decline in immigration from Eastern Europe since 2011 should provide some reassurance that the UK won't be facing a repeat of the post-2004 experience - Bulgarians and Romanians who do want to migrate will have plenty of other options. In the meantime, the government should worry less about the numbers and more about how it can make sure that the UK is as prepared as it can be for whatever changes in migration we do see in 2014.

Sarah Mulley is Associate Director at IPPR. She tweets @sarahmulley

A couple walk past shops catering for eastern Europeans in Boston, in Lincolnshire. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.