Unrealistic targets are not the way to deal with the politics of immigration

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March 5, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

Talk to people around the country about immigration, and they will say that it is a really important topic for them, and immigration policy helps them decide who to vote for. Yet so much of their understanding about immigration comes from messages from politicians are are far too simple, lack so much nuance, and provide not enough information for people to be making a really informed choice. The real problem for immigration and this country is how politicians have talked about it, and legislated for it.

Take David Cameron, for instance. A few years’ ago, he made a promise to reduce net migration (people who come in minus people who leave) to 100,000. He said he would do it “no ifs, no buts”. But there was a big if. If the United Kingdom is in the EU, and if the United Kingdom’s economy was doing well enough, freedom of movement of labour laws that are part of our EU membership would mean that we couldn’t stop people coming. So David Cameron made a promise that he had little control over keeping.

Now, we are at 300,000 net migrants and rising. Eurozone economic woes have driven people to look elsewhere, and a country with 3% growth, low inflation, and some pretty good benefits for immigrants has looked pretty attractive. Add those to asylum seekers and Brits returning home and it really was a terrible mistake to set and announce that target, and it has made it look like the Government cannot get a grip on delivering its objectives.

UKIP, of course, have jumped on this, pointing out that Cameron didn’t deliver on his promise and thus concluding that he is “soft” on immigration. They announced yesterday that they want put immigration back to where it was between 1950 and 2000, so about 50,000 immigrants a year (without naming a target number) selected by an Australian-style points system for ‘usefulness’ to the UK’s needs. The deliverability of that policy depends entirely on the UK NOT being in the EU. This could happen without a referendum (which is how some suggest UKIP would do it should they be in government), as Parliament has sovereignty so could simply vote to repeal the 1972 EU Communities Act. But the avalanche of economic, political and legal problems leaving the EU without a referendum would cause a government negates the realistic possibility of that happening.

But here’s a question – how many people thinking of voting UKIP actually realise that the commitments they are making on immigration rely on the UK not being in the EU, that a referendum would most probably need to be held for that to be a reality, and therefore the chances of them actually delivering that promise is a long way away and possibly never? I might suggest less than you think. So the Conservatives and Labour have a fight on their hands in marginal constituencies against a party who are wooing voters with a highly attractive yet impossible policy.

A recent YouGov poll found that 75% of voters think the level of immigration is too high. But an overwhelming majority of people think that if every immigrant were highly skilled, a student, wealthy and looking to invest or coming to work in the NHS then we should allow as many as possible. Only 15% think there are no positive benefits to immigration but 63% think the government doesn’t have it under control. The point here is that when people understand the benefits of immigration but fear the ability of Government to manage it efficiently they may prefer to have less of it, as that seems less ‘risk’ to them.

The response to the crisis of confidence that this has engendered has worsened the problem. Both UKIP and the Conservatives, and, in a far more vague way, Labour, have decided that “talking tough” on immigration is the answer. But that has meant that they are announcing plans and targets that are unrealistic and unachievable, which reduces trust in politicians, which reduces confidence further, and so on and so on.

Hopefully what will emerge out of all of this will be a proper balance between the use of immigration to stir up fear about the consequences of globalisation and modernity, and those who shout “racist” or call a life-long Labour voter a “bigoted woman” if they raise the subject at all. Whether this is possible is another story.


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