One might have thought that the news on immigration couldn’t get any worse for the Conservatives – but it just has. The figures released by the ONS this morning show that net migration rose to 298,000 in the year to September 2014, an increase of 88,000 compared to the previous 12 months. In other words, the level is now nearly three times the Tories’ target of “tens of thousands” (of which David Cameron declared in 2010: “If we don’t deliver our side of the bargain, kick us out in five years”). Worse, net migration is now higher than when the government took office, meaning that the Conservatives can’t even boast that the trend is downwards.
What they also can’t say is that while an extraordinary political failure, the figures are an economic success. That the UK is the destination of choice for so many migrants (immigration rose to 624,000, while emigration was static at 327,000) both reflects and reinforces its status as a centre of prosperity. Since immigrants are younger and more economically active than the population in general they stimulate growth and increase employment (currently at a record high; proof, if needed, that migrants don’t “take” jobs, they create them). But the Tories’ “tens of thousands” target, which is premised on immigration being a negative force, means they are incapable of telling this positive tale. After political humiliation, they have largely stopped talking about the subject on the correct grounds that doing so only aids Ukip (the only party promising to regain control of the UK’s borders through EU withdrawal).
Labour will assail Cameron today for breaking his pledge to the electorate but this is not a simple political victory for the opposition. The rejoinder to their criticism of the Tories’ failure is “what would you do?” Ed Miliband has long emphasised his aim of reducing low-skilled immigration to the UK (partly through more apprenticeships for British citizens) but has remained ambiguous on the question of what level of migration is ultimately desirable. Like the Tories, Labour is torn between the awareness that more immigration is an economic positive but that it remains a political negative. The danger for Miliband, as he tries to simultaneously woo pro-migration Greens and anti-migration Ukippers, is that his balancing act struggles to convince anyone.