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Labour can't promise to cut immigration, but it can promise a fairer deal

The party should be straight with voters about how different types of migration have different impacts on Britain.

The party should be straight with voters about how different types of migration have different impacts on Britain.
Immigration and border control signs at Edinburgh Airport on February 10, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

Imagine aiming for the bull’s eye only to throw the dart into your own foot. That near enough tells the story of the government’s attempts to meet its ill-conceived net migration target. Today’s figures only go to confirm what we’ve known for some time now: David Cameron and Theresa May haven’t a hope of reaching their pledge to bring net migration down below the "tens of thousands" by the end of this parliament. Indeed, the latest annual net figure of 212,000 can be compared with average annual  totals of 171,000 during the 13 years of Labour rule. No wonder the prime minister seems to be trying to draw back from the target and that calls for him to drop it altogether  are growing among Conservative MPs.

On the face of it, the Tories’ big miss should present a palpable hit for Labour, and it’s not surprising that Yvette Cooper’s response today had that wickedly gleeful tone which politicians can’t resist when a policy goes badly wrong for their opposite number. Yet, as George Eaton has pointed out on these pages, it’s not clear that Labour can exploit Tory failure on immigration in the same way it could with some other issues. That’s partly because of its own record – which is still fresh in the memory of voters - but also because Labour’s alternative approach has yet to win over a sceptical public. Progress has been made, both in repudiating the past and in laying the groundwork for the future, but there’s clearly more to do.

George Eaton suggests Labour’s main dilemma is that it somehow has to convince the voters that it would be "better at reducing immigration" than the Tories. It’s certainly true the public want that end, but this is one instance when just promising people what they want isn’t even good politics, let alone policy. Short of apeing Ukip and pulling out of the EU altogether an overall reduction simply cannot be guaranteed, and in the process of trying vainly to get there, a lot of damage can be caused to the economy, vital sectors and the UK’s standing overseas – as we’ve seen in the last few years. 

Much better now is to be straight with the voters about how different types of migration have different impacts on Britain – and while the government should be bearing down harder on some negative migration flows, in other areas, policy might lead to beneficial migration rising. The criteria in both cases should be: what is the UK’s national interest?

For instance, IPPR has proposed maximising the number of foreign students we try to attract, as this type of migration contributes hugely to this country, economically, socially and diplomatically. On the other hand, in our Fair Deal report we argued that the entry route for low skilled migrants from outside the EU should not just remain closed, it should be removed altogether – for the reason that the UK doesn’t need such migrants. Different approaches should be taken in other areas too: such as stronger measures, including more investment, to bear down on illegal immigration, but an end to caps and quotas on investors, entrepreneurs, high skilled and exceptionally talented migrants who, with proper rules in place, can and do make a major economic contribution to Britain.

Of course, a differentiated approach does not allow a party to make a simple, single promise. But given what’s happened to the Tory pledge it should be clear that pledge card politics is not appropriate in this complex field.

That said, abandoning a single target does not mean reducing government accountability for migration flows. Indeed, such accountability should be considerably strengthened, with the responsible minister for each different migration route – economic, study, asylum and so on – reporting annually to parliament, setting out future strategy and broad trends, and accounting for the government’s performance in the previous year.  As a senior Liberal Democrat, Sir Andrew Stunnell MP, has pointed out we have two major annual parliamentary set pieces on the economy – the Budget and the Autumn Statement – but nothing even roughly equivalent for perhaps the next biggest issue of public concern – immigration.   

Beyond this new approach to managing and accounting for migration trends, the new focus in migration policy should be on ensuring that its benefits are more evenly distributed. A big reason why Labour lost support from among its core vote on immigration was that people were loftily told not to worry about high numbers because the economic indicators showed  they were  contributing to growth. That was true at the macro-economic level, but missed the obvious point that people don’t live their lives in this elevated dimension. They live in real communities and work in the real economy.

What Labour failed to appreciate fully enough was that there were groups of workers who were losing out, sometimes as a direct result of migrant competition, even as the overall economy grew. A main plank of a fair deal on migration must that it will be managed explicitly to deliver more benefits to settled people on lower or middle incomes. This doesn’t mean disadvantaging migrants, but it does mean being clearer that any government’s first responsibility is to its own citizenry, particularly the poorest.  

A final aspect is being more alert to and sympathetic about the social and cultural change that high levels of migration can bring to communities. Generally, the UK has not only come to cope with diversity, but to embrace it.  However, alongside celebrating diversity and accommodating minority cultures, we should not be shy, still less ashamed, of promoting our shared identity and asserting long held, and dearly cherished, values, norms and traditions. If that means, and it can do, putting a bit more of an onus on new arrivals to "fit in" to the country to which they’ve chosen to move, that really shouldn’t cause such angst among people of a progressive mind. 

As I mentioned above, none of this makes for pledge card politics. But IPPR research has shown that a "fairness" approach, as outlined above, does resonate with mainstream opinion. And only an honest, open ended conversation on migration has any chance of draining the poison from this issue and pointing towards a long-term accommodation with one of the great issues of our age.

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