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Rather than pledging to cut immigration, politicians should promise a fairer system

The parties can't promise to reduce the number of newcomers. But they can do more to improve migrant integration and to reassure the public.

Greater focus on integration needed.
Immigration and border control signs at Edinburgh Airport on February 10, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

At an event the other day, one of the most distinguished economists of migration, Professor Christian Dustmann of UCL, told the audience that when he came to the UK 20 years ago, he couldn’t convince the main academic funding bodies that the economic impact of migration was a subject worthy of a research grant.  How times have changed. Now this is one of the most intensively researched issues across the disciplines. So despite the excitement among journalists about the publication today of a  Home Office report, which BBC Newsnight reported was suppressed, this "study of studies" will be  greeted by academics, in their usual mildly unimpressed way, as ‘a useful contribution’ to a burgeoning evidence base, but no more than that.

For, as expected, the internal Home Office report says migration has at most a small impact on the job prospects of British people – contrary to what the new immigration minister said in his much-derided speech this morning. The conclusions of the report confirm what the research community has known for years– not least because of the work of economists like Dustman and colleagues. Moreover, there is a strong body evidence that migration – even at the high levels  experienced for many years by the UK - brings fiscal benefits and helps to drive overall economic growth. Countries that have open economies have stronger economies. That is close to unarguable now – which explains why our economist business secretary, Vince Cable, is so "intensely relaxed" about high migration.

But politically he really shouldn’t be. For the public has not been won over, much to the frustration of some pro-migration advocates. Why, they ask,  are people being so irrational when the evidence that they are "wrong" is so strong. 

Research carried out for a new IPPR report gives some clue to this apparent conundrum. It shows clearly that the public continue to feel wounded by persistent high migration - and the phrase that sums up the root of their feelings is that migration often seems "unfair". They apply this word to issues like access to benefits or social housing or school places, reasoning that it cannot be right that people who have only arrived recently in the country and can’t have been paying into the system for long should have the same rights as people who’ve lived here all their lives. But they also apply it to the economy, even when the evidence of economic benefits is presented back to them. And the reason why they persist in their view in this area is because they feel, with some justification, that these benefits have not been fairly shared.  Their view can be summed up like this: "You tell me that migration is good for the economy, so how come I’m worse off?"

At which point it becomes clear that migration has become mixed up in the general sense of grievance that even when the UK economy was going strong under the last Labour government, it was failing to deliver for those lower down the scale. A crucial aspect of constructing a new approach to migration, therefore, is to ensure that it contributes rather than cuts across the construction of a much fairer economic model. If as the economy recovers, migration is seen to be helping to drive growth and business profits, but the prospects, pay and conditions of ordinary workers are stagnating or declining, the public will remain sceptical or even hostile towards migration. 

The fairness concept goes beyond a better sharing of costs and benefits, however, and reaches into areas that economic data and hard evidence can’t reach. What has become clearer in recent years – and it was touted quite shrewdly by Nigel Farage only recently – is that economic growth, even fairly shared, is not everything to the public, particularly when migration is a component.  High migration can bring about dislocating social and cultural change too and people in settled communities, with no prospect or inclination to migrate themselves, feel the upheaval they face is unfair.  They do not see why the onus should be on them to adapt. It would be much fairer if the responsibility was the other way round. This means that a greater focus on migrant integration and adaption to the UK is needed. The public view here is that migrants should not just work hard, and pay into our system, but also make an effort to "fit in".

Of course it remains the case that the public want lower migration.  The problem is that it is is becoming clearer that politicians and policymakers can't responsibly guarantee that.  The Conservatives made the pledge in 2010 and as many predicted at the time the result has been the pursuit of economically damaging policies and a failure to deliver.  A clue as to why this was the likely outcome is found in the wording of the plege.  Along withm the more famous part– that net migration would be reduced from "the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands" – there was a less often recalled element – that there would be a return to "the levels we saw in the 1980s and 1990s".  Yes, that’s right:  here was a promise to turn the clock back.  Well, the world, as it does, has kept on spinning forward making a mockery of such a backward looking stance. 

Even through a prolonged global economic downturn, the high levels of mobility of what the distinguished academic Stephen Castles called  "the age of migration" have persisted.  Of course, there are ways to bring down migration substantially, but this would require UKIP-style policies – pulling out of Europe, throwing up barriers to trade, constructing a Fortress UK.  There’ll be huge pressure on all the parties in the coming euro elections and next year’s general election to promise low migration.  But politicians need to tread carefully. They don't want find after 2015 that they've  driven up a dangerous dead end which it will be difficult to reverse out of. A better approach would be to promise well-managed and fairer migration.  That won't be easy to deliver, but at least it can be delivered. And it also offers a way of winning public consent for a more sustainable and foward looking approach to migration.