Vince Cable attends Liberal Democrat conference. Photo:Getty Images
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David Cameron can't keep blaming it all on the Liberal Democrats

Now he doesn't have those pesky Liberal Democrats to blame, David Cameron will soon find that his migration policies are a political and legal headache. 

So was it all Vince Cable’s fault? The latest figures show that the Government has once again missed its net migration target by a mile. The figures for net migration – the difference between immigration and emigration – for 2014 are more than three times David Cameron’s original target of net migration in the ‘tens of thousands’. But, listening to Cameron’s speech today, you could be forgiven for thinking that the failure of the Coalition Government’s net migration target could be pinned squarely on Lib Dem intransigence. Now, with a majority Conservative government, Cameron argued that he could put in place the reforms needed to get net migration down, to be set out in a new Immigration bill in the Queen’s Speech.

The truth is that, without the Lib Dems, the new government will still struggle to meet the net migration target – or its ‘ambition’, as it was referred to in the Conservative manifesto. There are three sets of measures the Prime Minister wants to pursue: a crackdown on illegal immigration; a renewed effort to support British people into employment (with an echo of Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’); and reforms to European freedom of movement through negotiations with the rest of the EU.

But none of these efforts are likely to have a significant impact on net migration. First, the vast majority of individuals making up the inward migration figures have a legal right to stay in the UK, so addressing illegal immigration is a red herring. Second, while some of Cameron’s efforts to support training and skills policy and address the exploitation of migrant workers are sensible, there is little evidence to suggest this will have a serious impact on numbers, at least in the short term, as they will not seriously deter most businesses from hiring migrant labour.

Third, Cameron’s efforts to achieve reforms to the benefit rules for migrants through EU negotiations will be a political and legal headache, particularly his proposed changes to in-work benefits, which will most likely require treaty change. Cameron will need all 27 other member states to agree to any treaty change – and it will be especially challenging to get Eastern European countries on board.

But, even if he does achieve welfare reforms there is little to suggest this will transform the net migration figures. The data suggests that EU nationals are less likely than average to claim unemployment benefits and only very slightly more likely than average to claim in-work benefits. There is some evidence to suggest that welfare states provision is one possible ‘pull factor’ for migrants, but decisions to migrate are influenced by a range of factors – including, crucially for the UK, shared language and a flexible labour market. It seems unlikely then that significant numbers of EU nationals will choose to not migrate to the UK on the basis of a change to the benefits/tax credits system.

Apart from these individual measures, there are structural challenges involved in achieving the net migration target – the UK’s relatively strong economy, flexible labour market, and linguistic and cultural connections will continue to make it an attractive place to come to. Even without the Lib Dems in government, departments are unlikely to want to cut their nose of to spite their face by drastically reducing skilled migrant labour from outside the EU. On top of this, even if there is a dip in net migration, it’s unlikely to last for long, due to the phenomenon of the “net migration bounce”: because migrants often leave Britain after a few years, fewer migrants coming here means fewer migrants leaving too. So a drop in migration to Britain would most likely lead to a drop in emigration as well – and consequently an increase in net immigration over time.

What does this all mean for the government? Rather than focusing relentlessly on the mirage of the net migration target, we need to do more to support communities affected by large increases in inward migration. In order to address public concerns practically and responsible, much more needs to be done to address the pressures of immigration, including on schools, GP places and housing, as well as on social cohesion.

The government’s commitment to a new fund to support communities most affected by high migration is an excellent first step that IPPR has advocated. There is a danger, though, that the fund is misused. In their manifesto, the Conservatives highlighted that the new ‘Controlling Migration Fund’ would be used to ‘ease pressures on services and to pay for additional immigration enforcement’. If the government wants to get serious about tackling the impact of migration, the fund should not simply be a cover for further enforcement efforts. This – not the net migration ambition – should be the real focus for migration policy over the next Parliament.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era