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  1. The New Statesman View
29 November 2023

The immigration dilemma

The UK’s political parties vie to sound “tough” on immigration while ignoring the policy choices required to reduce it.

By New Statesman

Britain is a country trapped in seemingly permanent stagnation. Economic growth is forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility to be just 0.6 per cent this year and 0.7 per cent next year. Average real wages are not expected to return to their 2008 level until 2028. The UK, in short, faces two lost decades for living standards.

But there is one exception to this stagnant outlook. Net migration, the Office for National Statistics revealed on 23 November, reached a record high of 745,000 in 2022 and stood at 672,000 in the year to June 2023. In the 1970s, the last time the UK was so transfixed by fears of decline, the country recorded net emigration. Now, in spite of its economic woes, Britain is experiencing the reverse.

This transformation appears even more startling in the aftermath of Brexit, a cause that drew much of its potency from opposition to high EU immigration. But there is no contradiction: while the Leave campaign vowed to end free movement from Europe, it always held open the possibility of higher immigration from the rest of the world (never once setting a target for overall migration). As we noted in a leader on 9 June 2016, the Australian-style “points system” cherished by Brexiteers was always likely to lead to higher numbers.

Though free movement was duly ended by Boris Johnson’s government, the wider immigration system was radically liberalised through a salary threshold for migrant workers of £25,600 in 2021 (or £20,480 for “new entrants” to the labour market). Unlike the previous system, there was no cap placed on the number of skilled migrant workers and employers were no longer required to ­demonstrate that vacancies could not be filled by ­domestic workers.

The logical consequences of this decision are playing out: while EU immigration has plummeted (just 129,000 migrants arrived in the year to June 2023), non-EU immigration has surged: 253,000 people migrated from India, 141,000 from Nigeria, 89,000 from China and 55,000 from Pakistan in the year to June 2023.

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[See also: The Tories’ secret workforce: record immigration]

Both Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party agree that overall numbers are now too high. In a BBC interview on 26 November, Darren Jones, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, suggested that Labour would seek to cut net migration to a “couple of hundred thousand a year” within its first term. But neither party is prepared to reckon with the harsh choices that such pledges entail.

For decades, successive governments have relied on high immigration to disguise the structural weaknesses of the British economy: a lack of training and public investment. The long-neglected social care sector is typical: 143,990 health and care worker visas were granted in the year to September 2023 to compensate for shortages.

Yet rather than funding the public realm, the Conservatives have other priorities: in his Autumn Statement on 22 November Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, chose to cut taxes by £20bn (and hinted at further reductions in next year’s Budget). In so doing, he perpetuated a model entirely dependent on high immigration.

Should Labour enter government next year, it would inherit a painfully tight spending settlement (with real-terms departmental spending due to fall by £19.1bn by 2027-28). But the party has said little about how it would respond to this parlous outlook. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, has promised only limited tax rises such as the abolition of non-domicile status and the addition of VAT to private school fees. While Labour has vowed to boost economic growth through supply-side reform and closer relations with the EU, this alone will not enable better public services – or lower immigration.

In the decades before the Brexit vote, politicians avoided an honest conversation with voters about free movement. Impossible promises to create “British jobs for British workers” and to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” were made and broken. “It was as if the makers did not dare to tell the truth,” Ruud Lubbers, the former Dutch prime minister and one of the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, observed of such evasion.

Today, a comparable deceit is unfolding as our political parties vie to sound “tough” on immigration while ignoring the policy choices required to reduce it. The longer such doublethink persists, the greater the risk of a new revolt.

[See also: A blunderer in high office]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now