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2 May 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:38am

Leader: Why the government must abolish the net migration target

A rational immigration system should be based on needs, not numbers.

By New Statesman

The Windrush scandal, one of the most shameful episodes in recent British political history, was not an accident. Rather it was the inevitable consequence of a government system that subordinated people to policy. The “hostile environment” created by Theresa May as home secretary, and her fixation with reducing net migration to “tens of thousands” a year, led to the bureaucratic ordeal faced by long-standing Afro-Caribbean residents. Regardless of personal circumstances, immigrants were deemed guilty until proven innocent: denied employment and health care, detained and, the final humiliation, even deported.

The proximate cause of Amber Rudd’s resignation as home secretary (the fourth senior cabinet departure in six months) was her false claim that deportation targets did not exist. However, her defining failure was the embrace of Mrs May’s policy legacy. Rather than challenging the Prime Minister, Ms Rudd pandered to her: proposing, for instance, to force companies to list the foreign workers they employ.

In the circumstances, Mrs May’s appointment of Sajid Javid as the new Home Secretary was sensible. Mr Javid, the first ethnic minority MP to hold one of the great offices of state, and the son of a Pakistani bus driver, spoke empathetically about the Windrush victims: “I thought that could be my mum, my dad, my uncle; it could be me.”

In his first House of Commons appearance as Home Secretary on 30 April, he disowned the phrase “hostile environment”, speaking instead of a “compliant” one, and vowed to end the neglect of the Windrush generation. Yet a change of substance, rather than merely one of style and tone, is required. The “hostile environment” policy, which subjects immigrants to arduous checks by landlords, employers and public service workers, should not be renamed but repealed.

Since the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, they have vowed to cut net migration to “tens of thousands” per year, but not once in the ensuing 96 months has this arbitrary target been met (net migration currently stands at 244,000). By defining present levels as a “failure”, the policy has further undermined public trust in the immigration system, and placed crude limits on the number of foreign students and non-EU workers (at a time of free movement of workers within the EU, over which Britain has no control).

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The public’s opposition to free movement influenced the vote for Brexit in 2016. Like the Conservatives, the last Labour government also undermined confidence by estimating that only 13,000 eastern Europeans would emigrate to Britain between 2004 and 2010, when more than ten times that number did. However, polling shows a majority of voters oppose the net migration target. A rational immigration system should be based on needs, not numbers. Indeed, when discussing the subject, cabinet ministers become immigration Nimbys: “Fewer migrants please, but not in my sector.”

While it needs to be controlled sensibly, immigration is an economic, social and cultural good. Mr Javid should have the courage to make this argument – and transform a department that, as John Reid once put it, is “not fit for purpose”. 

Marx at 200

When the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, greeted a business executive recently, he remarked: “Hello, are you looking forward to having a Marxist in No 11?” In the 200 years since Karl Marx’s birth, many of his bolder prophecies have been proved wrong. Yet as Paul Mason writes on page 26, his
influence, much like the capitalist system whose overthrow he predicted, endures.

The continuing relevance of the body of work Marx left behind has been acknowledged in unlikely quarters. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England and former Goldman Sachs executive, has warned that the advance of automation – and with it mass unemployment and wage stagnation – could result in Europe turning to Marxism within a generation. “You have exactly the same dynamics as existed 150 years ago – when Karl Marx was scribbling The Communist Manifesto,” Mr Carney noted.

In the age of the “gig economy”, Marx’s analysis of capitalism – its tendency to monopoly, its maldistribution of wealth, its alienation of workers – can appear startlingly prescient and it demands a meaningful response. 

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This article appears in the 02 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right