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4 October 2016

The government is taking a big risk on immigration

When people feel the effects of border control on their wallets, things may get worse rather than better for Britain's immigrant communities.

By Stephen Bush

One of the perennial problems the Labour party has had throughout its history is believing that polls showing a fondness for better public services automatically translates into a support for paying more tax. Come the crunch, at the ballot box, people tend to pick more money in their pockets over the public realm. Now the right is making the same mistake.

It’s worth pointing out that the big divide in the referendum wasn’t in believing that immigration was too high – two-thirds of British voters want lower immigration, including 47 per cent of those voting to Remain – but whether or not people believed you could reduce immigration without hitting their wallets. A survey for Eric Kaufman at Birkbeck found that 62 per cent of voters were unwilling to pay anything to reduce immigration –  while another survey, for Philip Cowley at Queen Mary University, found that a cost of just £25 a year was enough to put people off border control. What happened in the referendum was that, for one reason or another, voters were unconvinced they would pay anything at all if immigration went down or we left the European Union.

Now Amber Rudd, the new Home Secretary, has laid out a further raft of measures designed to reduce immigration. Some measures, like effectively recruiting landlords into the UK Border Force, will make finding a flat to rent a more tricky and unpleasant task for people with foreign names or dark skin but are unlikely to get close to that £25 a year price tag. But further restrictions on universities and a continued commitment to getting the net migration figure down certainly will.

As far as universities are concerned, we often forget they are the most effective tool for regenerating an area yet devised as far as creating jobs, consumers and opportunities are concerned. If you want to rejuvenate a city, start by building or improving a university. If you want to send it backwards, heap more costs and admin on them while driving away their staff and their students.

That’s before you get to the awkward truth about immigration, which is the best way to get numbers down is to cause a recession. Added to that, getting numbers down is a great way to cause a recession as well, so once those numbers start going down, the good news if reducing immigration is your aim is that they will likely keep falling.

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That might also help achieving a remarkable and unnoticed line in Rudd’s speech: “it’s only by reducing the numbers back down to sustainable levels that we can change the tide of public opinion … so once again immigration is something we can all welcome”. In other words, let’s reduce immigration so we can increase it again. It is certainly possible that, as people start to feel the consequences of a genuinely anti-immigration border policy in their pockets, they will come round to the idea that higher immigration (and perhaps even re-entry into the single market, who knows) aren’t so bad.

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That’s one of the two “least-bad” bets about what might happen when the United Kingdom starts to reduce net migration. The second is that it might turn out that people follow the Nigel Farage line that they are, in fact, happy to be poorer but to have lower net migration. But the third – and in many ways most likely – scenario is the economic shocks of reducing immigration will be blamed on Britain’s immigrants and minorities.