Will the real Ed Miliband please stand up?

His early supporters thought the Labour leader had the courage and intellectual energy to remake British politics. So what happened to the optimism?

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the leader of the Labour Party,” declaims the bespectacled man in the dark suit, whom none of the assembled journalists has recognised as the mayor of Newham. “. . . And our next prime minister!” In the tiny pause that follows, a sceptical ripple passes through the audience. It is less audible than a titter, more like the rustle of a hundred eyebrows simultaneously raised in quizzical arches. “. . . Ed Milibaaand!” Applause.

We are at a conference centre overlooking one of east London’s grey-blue docks. On the far bank, a light aircraft stands on the runway of City Airport. But it could be any set-piece speech by the Labour leader. The format and the formulaic introduction are always the same – and I’ve seen a few. The reaction is the same, too. Even when the crowd is padded out with loyal party members, there is palpable disbelief at the assertion that Miliband will make it to Downing Street.

Yet arithmetic says that is the likeliest bet in 2015. If the Conservatives perform any worse than they did in 2010 – and there aren’t many reasons why they should do better – David Cameron is finished. With left-leaning refugees from the Liberal Democrats bolstering Miliband’s core vote and Ukip cannibalising Cameron’s, it is relatively easy for Labour to overtake the Tories. The number-crunchers in Miliband’s team have projections that push him over the parliamentary finish line with a vote share as small as 34 per cent. That should be a doddle against a divided government in a debilitated economy. In Labour’s worst-case scenarios, Miliband would lead a minority administration or coalition. He’d still be in No 10. “All the evidence shows that Ed Miliband is odds-on to become the next prime minister, even if he doesn’t quite win a majority,” says Andrew Harrop, the general secretary of the Fabian Society. “But the politicians and journalists who saw him as an outsider haven’t been able to make the psychological adjustment.”

Westminster doesn’t treat Miliband as a winner – and neither do many Labour MPs. “I backed Ed because I thought he would grow into the role,” says a prominent member of the cohort elected in 2010. “Now I don’t think he can. I don’t think we can win from here.” We are drinking tea in Portcullis House, the modern parliamentary annexe under whose vast, vaulted glass roof politicians, aides and journalists trade gossip on condition of anonymity. In their public pronouncements Labour MPs still put up a formidable front of unity, but sit down for a quiet cuppa and you quickly uncover gloomy forecasts of defeat.The party’s mood seems out of kilter with its maths. Why?

The accusations against the leader are many and often contradictory. He has failed to distance himself enough from New Labour and failed to defend the party’s record in office. He evades the truth about tight budgets and embraces austerity too eagerly. He has too little policy and too much. The party’s opinion poll lead feels soft – a lucky dividend from coalition mishaps, not an endorsement of the opposition. Three years of denouncing George Osborne have not succeeded in transferring blame for Britain’s economic malaise from the last regime to the incumbent one.

In Miliband’s office there is frustration that the leader gets so little credit for bringing the party even within sight of victory when expectations started so low. “I genuinely think we’re doing better than most people seem to realise,” says a very senior aide. “It’s a point-in-the-parliament thing.”

Those in Miliband’s inner circle insist there is a long game being played that takes account of two factors often overlooked by commentators: first, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which deprives Cameron of any element of surprise in the timing of an election and, second, the lack of precedent to judge how oppositions ought to be performing against coalitions under extreme economic conditions. This, say Miliband’s friends, makes it unwise to start revealing a policy hand too early. As one close adviser puts it: “There are two groups of people who want us to have more policies – the Tories, so they can attack them with the full resources of government at their disposal, and the media, so they have something to write about.”

Uncertain times require reticence, for now, until the party rolls out its agenda for government next year. That has always been the plan, says another Miliband confidant; jitters and jeers were anticipated. “We always knew this would be a consequence of the strategic choices we made, but you’ve got to hold your nerve. Real credibility demands we wait.”

Meanwhile, veterans of more fractious periods in Labour history recognise the intrinsic value of a united front – even if it is brittle and achieved by deferring difficult choices. “Silence on some things is the price you pay for unity at this stage,” says David Owen, one of the moderates who broke away from Labour to found the Social Democratic Party in 1981. “[Miliband’s] heart is in the right place and he’s created conditions that really maximise party unity . . . It’s realistic for him to want to keep his options open now.”

No one can say with any confidence how well he is pulling off the task of returning an exiled party to government within one term, because it hasn’t been done recently. For a generation, politics has been played out over long cycles – 18 years of Tory rule, ending in Tony Blair’s landslide victory, then 13 years of New Labour, culminating in crushing defeat.

In 2010 there was a presumption in the media and parliament alike that Labour was due a spell in the wilderness. That view was reinforced by a leadership contest that unexpectedly led to the crowning of the younger Miliband brother. Tory strategists punched the air when Ed’s victory was announced. Grandees from the Blair era texted each other with variations on the theme “We’re screwed”. The received wisdom had it that the opposition would self-immolate on the margins as the real battles were fought in the novel arena of coalition government. Instead, Labour remained disciplined and bounced back within two years. No circular firing squads; no lurches to the hard left.

Much of the negativity around Miliband, his cheerleaders say, reflects a habit of mind that hasn’t caught up with the facts. There is an irreconcilable faction that harbours a feeling that Ed didn’t even win the leadership election properly, because he was not the first choice of most party members or MPs. It was the trade unions that tipped the scales in his favour.

Grumbling about the process glosses over important features of Miliband’s pitch to the party. His candidacy wouldn’t have got off the ground without insight into what the left wanted after 13 years of Labour government. The movement was demoralised by the compromises demanded by power. It was in reactive mode, recoiling from the Blair-Brown embrace of a version of free-market capitalism that seemed to have expired in the 2007- 2008 financial crisis. Surely, Labour told itself, the pendulum was about to swing left.

That instinct is fundamental to the emerging Miliband doctrine. It holds that there was a thread of ideological continuity running from the Conservative governments in the 1980s into the New Labour years – a deference to laissez-faire capitalism that reached a catastrophic climax in the financial crisis. Central to the Labour leader’s self-belief is the conviction that Britain is ripe for transformation equivalent in scale to the social and economic revolution planned by intellectual conservatives in the late 1970s and unleashed by Margaret Thatcher.

In 2010, given the context of the biggest crisis in capitalism in living memory, many on the left felt that a candidate who spoke with sincere passion about reversing inequality and restoring a national spirit of solidarity could reawaken a dormant socialdemocratic impulse in the British electorate. Backers of the junior Miliband thought he might be the one.

“Ed seemed to be someone who had a genuine view of what social-democratic politics could be,” Roy Hattersley, a veteran of Lab - our’s long march through opposition in the 1980s, told me. “I hoped and believed he would articulate that.” Miliband also had the enthusiastic support of Neil Kinnock.

For many supporters of New Labour, those endorsements sounded like the doomed rallying cry of pious losers who had spent their chance to win power with the party’s landmark defeat by John Major in 1992. Many walked away. Senior figures, including exministers and top policy advisers, refused invitations to work in the leader’s office. David Miliband twice rejected offers to join the shadow cabinet. James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, turned down the chance to be Ed’s chief of staff. The post went unfilled for over a year before being taken by Tim Livesey, a former diplomat and adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Most elections are followed by a honeymoon period. Miliband had none. One consequence of the loneliness of that time is the Labour leader’s enduring dependence on the handful of people who believed in him from the start. He consults widely on both the left and the right of the party, but insiders say there is a clear hierarchy of trust based on purity of conviction.

At the innermost core are those with impeccable credentials as early adopters of the Ed philosophy: Stewart Wood, the Oxford academic, former Treasury official and exadviser to Gordon Brown who now has the title of shadow minister without portfolio, and Marc Stears, an old Oxford University friend of Miliband who this year took the formal role of chief speechwriter. Outsiders see the leader’s operation as an intellectual clique whose remoteness from the body of the party is exaggerated by the location of the leader of the opposition’s official suite of rooms at the top of Norman Shaw South, a dingy, red-brick, Edwardian-era addition to the parliamentary estate.

Miliband’s walls are lined with reproductions of vintage 1940s Labour campaign posters and visitors report that the atmosphere sometimes owes more to a protracted seminar in a university faculty than a campaign headquarters. First drafts of speeches, born with radical intent, are drained of passion in endless committee revisions. There is a rearguard action, often led by Tom Baldwin, Miliband’s  senior communications adviser, to impose “punter-friendly” language – translating the abstract ideas into something that might mean something to voters.

Miliband employs a small army of policy experts, but very few feel authorised to debate the underlying strategic judgement – the belief in Britain’s hunger for a new moralising account of how the economy should be structured. Members of Labour’s front bench are judged by their zeal in advancing the “responsible capitalism agenda”. Shadow ministers are accused of failing to do their share of “the heavy lifting” in developing the argument. There is muttering in the leader’s office about a lack of intellectual ambition on the opposition benches at a time when David Cameron, by contrast, has an embarrassment of ideological outriders on his right flank.

The riposte from the shadow cabinet is that ambitions to outride are thwarted by caution in the leader’s office. Attempts to set out innovative positions are fed into the central machine, where they are suffocated with caveats. (When this is put to Miliband’s team the response is withering: “We aren’t aware of some great bubbling-up of ideas.”)

Shadow ministers and MPs struggle with the leader’s ponderous attitude to decisionmaking. They accuse his office of lacking agility, failing to get the best TV clips into the evening news bulletins on days when big stories are breaking. “There is too much sitting around for four days and then giving something to the Observer which no one will read,” says a frontbencher of Miliband’s supposedly rapid responses. “There’s too much of Labour telling people what they should be worried about, when we want them to be worried about it.”

Miliband has made it clear that he won’t be bounced into taking positions when newspapers demand it, because the Tories have set some parliamentary trap or because a subject happens to be dominating the 24-hour news schedule. He isn’t fazed by the “daily froth”, say friends. He intervenes when he has worked out what exactly what kind of intervention he wants to make.

The Docklands speech was months in gestation. It was designed to be the definitive response to criticisms that Labour lacked an adequate response to Tory promises to cap welfare spending – a position that George Osborne has been using to discomfit the opposition since his 2010 spending review.

Finally, Miliband set out his version of a cap. He made the case for addressing underlying causes of high social security spending rather than tearing away repeatedly at the safety net. Use limited resources on building homes, he said, not housing benefit. Subsidise job creation, he implored, instead of handing out dole money. Imposing budget discipline should not oblige us “to leave our values at the door”.

It was a careful synthesis of fiscal rectitude and conscientious outrage and, with some recalcitrant exceptions, the speech was received with acclaim and relief in the party. Miliband’s team felt vindicated in the approach of not rushing into announcements until the boss had clarified his thinking and chosen a course with which he could be politically and morally satisfied.

Labour MPs are ambivalent about this temperament, admiring or ridiculing it as the “Zen” attitude to opposition. It often leaves them milling around, uncertain what direction the leader is about to take. Miliband pushes his luck, leaving crucial decisions untaken for so long that the party starts to sound restive and discipline looks close to breaking down. Then the leader emerges from his meditations carrying tablets of stone engraved with policy pronouncements.

It is a pattern that speaks of an apprenticeship in Gordon Brown’s Treasury. The two men have entirely different temperaments (MPs from all parties say the current Labour leader is vastly more likeable than his predecessor) but they share the habit of meditating for too long over big strategic questions and then unveiling the answer in densely argued, technical speeches.

 It is often said in Labour circles that there are two Ed Milibands. There is the one whose principled ardour and appreciation of the need for drastic economic and social renewal won him the leadership in the first place. Then there is the ultra-cautious one, who is a creature of machine politics and who has risen to the top of the Westminster establishment by tactical increments. “He wants to be a radical reformer in the mould of Thatcher,” says Patrick Diamond, a former Downing Street adviser who is now senior research fellow at the Policy Network think tank. “On the other hand, he is a pragmatic technician who reached maturity in politics working at the feet of Gordon Brown.”

If Miliband bears the imprint of Brownism, Ed Balls is steeped in it. The shadow chancellor has his own bunker operation that works in collaboration with the leader’s office but not in deference to it. Of all the impediments to the advancement of the “responsible capitalism” agenda, the greatest by far is the refusal by Labour’s most prominent economic policy figure to take it seriously.

Miliband’s strategy in the run-up to 2015 is meant to involve the revelation of an economic model that will tip the balance of power away from big finance and corporate behemoths towards small businesses and ordinary citizens. Yet the shadow chancellor has said nothing on that theme. His most notable intervention recently was an oath of fiscal discipline – in effect pledging to spend no more than the coalition – choreographed with Miliband’s welfare speech to give an impression of shared frugal resolve.

The concern, especially on the left of the party, is that Miliband and Balls will end up fighting an election as the people who agree with Cameron and Osborne about cuts, only three years late.

For Labour’s offer to be qualitatively different, the leadership’s idealism has to be rooted in budgetary realism but transcend it. Balls, for all his undisputed talents as an economist and political operator, doesn’t do visionary idealism. So say his critics. His allies reply that a shadow chancellor cannot be held responsible for a leader’s inability to sell his own vision. Balls loyalists struggle to conceal their disdain for Miliband’s style of wonky presentation.

MPs and activists don’t need focus groups to tell them the leader is not wowing a mass audience. Friends and constituents tell them he comes across as unassuming and awkward. He inspires neither great acrimony nor particular affection. That, say the optimists, means there is capacity for improvement. The more the voters see, the more they will like. Miliband’s allies point out that defying expectations – benefiting from others underestimating him – has been the pattern of his leadership so far.

“Everyone at every stage has asked if Ed can do the next bit,” says the former cabinet minister John Denham, who sometimes advises Miliband. “Can he perform on the national stage? Can he do Prime Minister’s Questions? Can he set the political agenda? Can he win local elections? The answer every time has been ‘yes’. The next step is: can he become a really popular leader in the country? I think he can do it. That’s the step that has got to be made.”

The Conservatives are relying on the pros - pect that Miliband will wilt under the campaign spotlight. Downing Street strategists, recalling their own experience in building the Cameron brand, say there is a very narrow window – a year or two – in which a candidate has enough benefit of the doubt to control public perceptions. After that, he is vulnerable to being typecast as something his enemies want him to be. In Miliband’s case, that thing is a “blancmange in a hurricane” – Michael Gove’s description of a man he finds too wobbly to be entrusted with command in extreme economic conditions.

Some doubts were suspended after Mili - band’s “one nation” speech to Labour’s annual conference in Manchester last October. The confident delivery and optimistic message gave the gathered faithful hope that their leader could indeed mobilise an optimistic spirit of collective national endeavour. But eight months later, few Labour MPs think “one nation” is making any great advances into the public consciousness. There are dismissive comparisons with Cameron’s flimsy “big society” rhetoric.

Miliband’s team rejects the analogy, urging patience as the great strategy unfurls. But Labour feels its patience stretched, not least because the Tories look so eminently beatable. Miliband is not so much a victim of his own successes as a casualty of his enemies’ premature failures. The fractiousness of the coalition and Cameron’s tenuous control over his party have invited early speculation about Miliband’s credentials as a successor – and he doesn’t look ready.

Meanwhile, Ukip is scooping up stray protest votes. Labour’s assumption that the financial crisis heralded a realignment of politics on the left didn’t factor in a midterm populist insurgency on the right.

The government’s mistakes gave Labour hope when they expressed an opportunity. Now the mass of Cameron’s problems has become the scale for measuring Miliband’s weakness whenever he fails to press home the advantage.

The numbers agree that he could become Britain’s next prime minister in 2015. If Labour’s current average opinion-poll lead of about 7 points were replicated in a general election, Ed Miliband would emerge to govern with a majority of roughly 90 seats. Yet no one in the party thinks that, or anything close to it, will happen. Labour is suspended between what it knows is possible and what it feels is likely. Even Miliband’s staunchest supporters fear that the evangelical energy is draining away from the project.

“If Mrs Thatcher taught us anything it was that people find conviction attractive even when they disagree with it,” Hattersley says. “I have no doubt that Ed has that. He just needs to show it. We need a more proselytising approach and I think Ed can do it. But I also think he has to get on with it.”

First ruminate: critics accuse Miliband of procrastinating and mulling too long over strategic decisions. Photograph: Kate Peters/Institute for New Statesman.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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How a devolved immigration policy could work in Brexit Britain

London and Scotland could keep free movement, or something close to it. 

Just a few short months after the vote to Leave, Britain and the European Union appear to be hurtling towards confrontation – and mutual self-harm. At the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), we believe that what we need is not “hard Brexit” or “soft Brexit” but “smart Brexit”.

At the moment, too much of the debate is characterised by clinging on to obsessively ideological positions, or attempting to relitigate the referendum because you didn’t like the result. There is far too little serious policy thinking taking place.  

Firstly, we should demand that politicians think again on immigration policy. Recent polling has shown that the country is split on whether to prioritise the economy or immigration control in the negotiations. Given this, it would be reasonable to expect politicians to attempt to accomplish both. Yet politicians on both left and right have marched off to the extremes.

Theresa May has indicated that we are heading towards a one-size-fits-all closed borders system; Jeremy Corbyn has made an absolute commitment to freedom of movement, defining immigration as a problem of austerity economics. Both positions are overly simplistic, unoriginal, and show little regard for our democracy or national interest. We should begin by disentangling the different strands of the immigration debate. 

The referendum exposed three broad contours to the immigration question. The first is that different parts of the country have different interests; the benefits and costs of immigration are not evenly distributed, particularly with regard to jobs. Second, there is an important cultural dimension about consent – expressed as "nobody asked us" – and the pace of change in specific communities. It was striking that the areas with the highest levels of immigration strongly voted Remain; but those with the fastest pace of change voted strongly Leave. Third, that there are public concerns about the impact of immigration on public services and housing.

A devolved immigration system would allow different parts of the country to act according to their (divergent) interests. It could work by using certificates of sponsorship to require employers to specify the place of work and residence of the employees they sponsor; and by setting region-specific quotas for these certificates by sector (and possibly pay level).

Such an approach would better secure our national interest by recognising our regional differences, boost democratic decision-making and so address consent, and go some way to address the impact on public services and housing. It would work for both EU and non-EU migrants. There are international precedents, such as Canada. 

A regional solution

Under this option, different regions would determine their interests and then either set quotas for specific sectors or determine that some or all sectors should have no restrictions, differentiated by EU and non-EU migrants. In sectors which required work permits, employers would need to draw down against agreed quotas. Employers would be required to register a place of work for migrant employees, and ensure that their home address was in a commutable distance from their place of work. For those sectors without restrictions, registration would take place but would not be subject to quotas. It would mean some additional rigidity in the labour force - migrants workers would not be able to be redeployed from one part of the country to another without affecting each region’s quotas. 

The key to such an approach is London. The capital is a huge draw for people from overseas - it would have to decide to sustain free movement for a devolved system to have any chance of being effective. There would simply be too much risk of backdoor entry to London if it were to set quotas. Londoners, like the rest of the country, are split on immigration. Nonetheless, they elected a Mayor who openly supports free movement, London’s globally-orientated services sector benefits strongly from immigration, and voted strongly for Remain. There is every reason to believe that London would decide to continue free movement for EU citizens. 

The crucial step for such an approach to have legitimacy would be to have democratic control of setting work permit quotas. For Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London, the devolved democratic structures are already in place to make decisions on immigration. Not only did Scotland vote strongly to Remain, when Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave her first major post-Brexit speech at IPPR in July, she described the importance of free movement for Scotland. The Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies are clearly well-placed to make decisions for their parts of the Union. 

Democratic solutions for other parts of the country would need to be bespoke. One approach might be to form “Grand Committees” of existing elected representatives in different regions. These would bring together elected council leaders, the newly-elected Metro Mayors, and Members of Parliament, with voting in an electoral college, determined by population size. They would then consult with the public and employers, examine the evidence, and make the decisions for which the public could hold them to account.   

Goodbye, net migration target

Elected politicians would need to be able to make informed decisions, based on analysis of the skills base and the workforce requirements for sectors in each region. It would be vital to have proper consultation processes with employers and with citizens and communities. 

Such an approach would also require the devolution of the education and skills systems. If employers cannot seek skilled labour from overseas, they will need to be able to secure skilled workers at home. The entity responsible for immigration policy would need to make skills policy, too. 

National immigration policy would be reserved for those areas that are properly national, such as refugee resettlement and asylum policy for those fleeing persecution. By focusing national political choices on matters of principle, it would enable us to have a more moral conversation about our obligations in the world. It would stop us from conflating the people fleeing the terrible destruction in Syria with those looking for a boost to their pay from higher wages in Britain than in Eastern Europe. It might just enable us to begin to act like responsible members of the international community again. We should also embrace what could be termed “cultural free movement”: allowing all EU citizens to visit and to study across the UK visa-free. This would tap into the nobler – and popular – aspects of the European project, and might be used to secured our continuing participation in pan-European scientific research and the Erasmus programme. Immigration controls on the citizens of European countries should be reserved for employment, through work permits.    

It would also require the net migration target to be abandoned, as it is completely inconsistent to have a national net target with devolved controls. This would be a good thing: it would provide political cover to abandon a particularly stupid piece of policy. As IPPR has argued for many years, it makes absolutely no sense to lump together American bankers, Polish builders, and Syrian refugees and count them all as the same. Furthermore, a recent IPPR report concluded that the numbers are probably shoddy anyhow. They simply don't stand up to serious scrutiny. If you believe the official figures, tens of thousands of people get university degrees and then disappear into black economy jobs earning cash-in-hand every year. It’s just not plausible.

So, how can a devolved immigration system help?

Professors and fruitpickers

A devolved immigration system would recognise that different parts of the country have different interests. Strong majorities in London and Scotland have voted for political leaders that openly support free movement of people. In other parts of the country, there appears to be a stronger consensus that free movement is not in their interests. 

The East of England, for example, might conclude that it needed migrants to work in the fields of the fens and to work in research laboratories in Cambridge’s world leading institutions, and place no restrictions on fruit pickers and professors. But it might also decide to set quotas for skilled jobs in light manufacturing, and to direct the skills system to train local workers for those roles instead of opening those opportunities up to migrants. This would mean that the immigration system could be optimised to the interests of different parts of the UK. 

Moreover, a devolved approach would humanise the debate on immigration. It would require practical choices determined by regional needs. It would remind us that migrants are people who do essential jobs like work in our hospitals (I imagine every part of the UK will want to keep the NHS functioning). It would demand that local employers make the case to local politicians. It might just take us away from high level statistics and low level instincts. It would take us from the politics of the gut being fought in the gutter to a more responsible discussion. 

Critics will say that this will end up with free movement in a complex and bureaucratic way. Even if this was the case – it is not clear that it would be – it would mean that people would have decided for themselves that migration was beneficial. Some degree of messiness is inherent in any compromise solution; and the incremental complexities of a devolved rather than national system are marginal. If Britain found its way to free movement by democratic consent rather than by Whitehall diktat, that would surely be preferable. Then, the question, “what have the immigrants ever done for us?” might well receive a Monty Pythonesque response. 

Tackling the pressures

Proper management of immigration means addressing its consequences. In a world where public sector budgets are being cut, services have struggled to cope with demand. Most studies have demonstrated that migrants, in the aggregate, are net contributors to the public purse but that does not take away from the pressures felt locally. Politicians on the left and right have alighted on some common ground in their approach - all major parties support a migration impact fund. Yet a migration impact fund, whilst necessary and useful, is ultimately marginal.  

The real solution must be to address the underlying allocation formulae that create these distributional problems. In addition to his pointless, destructive, and unnecessary reorganisation of the NHS, Andrew Lansley also tampered with the allocation formula that distributes NHS budgets across the country. It was reweighted to increase the significance of age, meaning that areas with more older people received disproportionately more money, while resources were moved away from younger, poorer areas. 

This was an act of grotesque political cynicism. It had the effect of redistributing from poorer typically Labour-voting areas to older, wealthier Tory-voting areas. But the other affect was to shift resources away from places with high immigration, since migrants are typically young themselves and have higher fertility rates. It was a far more significant – and cynical – decision than the abolition of the pitiful migrant impact fund. And so reinventing the migrant impact fund is merely tinkering at the edges.  

Similarly, blaming immigration for the housing crisis is easy but wrong. A large number of new arrivals certainly adds to the pressure. But it pales in significance when compared to our abject failure to build enough houses. Britain has roughly double the population of Canada and yet builds just one-third of the new homes every year. The solution to the lack of affordable housing is to build more homes. No immigration policy is going to solve the housing crisis. 

What are the drawbacks?

A devolved immigration system certainly has some drawbacks, both in substance and implementation. As with any sector-based approach to immigration, there is a risk of getting the numbers wrong resulting in skills shortages for employers, or putting firms off from investment by creating uncertainty about the labour supply. Those areas that had decided to introduce particularly draconian controls might find that employers decided to move elsewhere. This is no more true than at a national level, as reports from international firms reconsidering their investments illustrate.  

Operationally, it could become complex and bureaucratic. The foolish dismantling of the Government Digital Service has seriously eroded central government’s capacity and capability to do things in an efficient, modern way. As with all immigration systems, people will be tempted to abuse it, and it would need to be robustly policed. Moreover, this system would place greater responsibilities on employers - they would have to face stiffer penalties if they abused – or permitted abuse to take place – the system. Part of the price would be the inevitable steady drumbeat of stories in the xenophobic parts of the press finding people working where they were not registered. But these drawbacks – whilst important – are massively outweighed by the benefits. 

Immigration and the Brexit deal

The international response to the government’s strident signals about immigration control has been fiercely negative. The hostility of tone – verging on xenophobia – was regarded with shock and disgust in many European capitals. The political dynamic between British politicians and their European counterparts has quickly become toxic. We are heading down the path of "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD). 

For the most part, European leaders see the EU as an inextricable part of their national interests, which is precisely why its preservation is top of their agenda. Right now, their judgement seems to be that Britain must be seen to be worse off because of Brexit in order to prevent the Exit contagion catching, just as they were determined to punish Greece so that the debt crisis would not spread to Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. After all, as Nigel Farage himself pointed out, there are somethings that are more important that GDP, and most European leaders believe preservation of the EU falls into that category. 

Speaking privately, one European cabinet minister recently told me that his country would be pushing for the “worst possible deal” for the UK because “a good deal for you would cause chaos for us, and even if you were seen to be treated fairly, that would push us towards the exit door”. At present, the mindset is that Britain must be seen to pay a price, and there is a very real risk that the EU forces us to choose between our car industry and our financial services sector. This is yet another reason that we need to be seeking common ground, not pursuing a divisive approach in the country or internationally.  

A devolved immigration system might enable EU leaders to say that free movement had been secured because it would continue in London and Scotland (and possibly in other regions too) along with nationwide “cultural free movement”. Given their fidelity to the principle of free movement, it would still require them to make quite a departure from their existing position. But in a devolved immigration system, we might just find our common ground. That, perhaps combined with paying a hefty fee, might be just about enough to secure our access to the single market and participation in some of its key institutions – vital if we are to be regulation makers rather than takers – or at the very least tariff-free trade for tradable goods and passporting for the City of London. It would certainly be a more attractive offer than us pulling up the drawbridge or being "pro having our cake and pro eating it".

Finally, there is a wider issue at stake here. As we enter into the negotiations, we will need much more smart thinking about nuanced solutions. At the present, our political leaders – on left and right – appear to be spending more time posturing and swaggering than thinking. Our Conservative Prime Minister and recently re-elected opposition leader are sacrificing the national interest on the altar of party management, the perpetual problem in British politics. We should demand Smart Brexit, and we should demand more creative thinking from our government, its leaders, advisers and officials. In this period of turmoil, the British people deserve nothing less.    

Tom Kibasi is the Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.