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The politics of migration

The former foreign secretary, David Miliband, observed a couple of years ago that all over the world there are "societies struggling to cope with migration, and to cope without it". His words could be applied to the tension in British...


The former foreign secretary, David Miliband, observed a couple of years ago that all over the world there are “societies struggling to cope with migration, and to cope without it”. His words could be applied to the tension in British politics today: our economy and our society need migration, yet much of the political discourse focuses on reducing it. There is an explanation for this paradox, of course. The Leave campaign focused on immigration in its successful case against the EU. In the last two general elections, the polls have shown immigration consistently at or near the top of the concerns of voters. Politicians from all parties have tried to balance the empirical with the electoral, all the while a section of the press has screamed about migration. As Labour prepares its manifesto for this election it faces a fresh challenge: which policies should it pursue for the 45 per cent of the UK’s immigration that comes from the European Union.

As a starting point, let’s take the government’s much-commented upon ‘net migration target’ which aims to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. It’s bad policy and bad politics. Its chosen measure – net migration – includes categories of migrants the government says it has no intention of reducing (higher education students, for example). Net migration is far higher than the government’s target, yet when Yvette Cooper questioned Theresa May about this, the prime minister couldn’t shed any light at all on how policy might change to meet the target. This is where the bad politics comes in. Promises that aren’t kept erode public trust, further increasing the turbulence in a debate which badly needs calmer heads. There is often a confusion between statistics and the ‘target’. Statistics include international students,  who we need to continue to attract to ensure the UK  and its universities remain competitive. They don’t need to be ‘removed from the figures’ – but they can be removed from a political target.

On EU migration, Keir Starmer has unveiled a strategy seeking to maximise economic integration with the EU alongside new immigration rules. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn has suggested that Labour’s first priority on Brexit is jobs, and that migration should be looked at afterwards. No further detail has yet been set out. It’s certainly the case that ahead of the negotiations with the EU, drawing up a migration plan raises many questions. Will migration arrangements with the EU be reciprocal? Does the extent of any trade deal affect the level of migration control – and if so how and for whom? Will migrants from the EU continue to be treated differently from non-EU citizens, and, again, if so, how? It would take a small book, rather than a blog, to set out answers to these questions. The manifestos of all of the main parties, to the extent they go into detail at all, will set out aims and ambitions rather than swiftly realisable commitments.

Some direction can be provided in Labour’s manifesto, however. Direction guided, first, by Labour’s tradition as an internationalist party, one that – at least in recent decades – has shown a reasonably strong belief in European solidarity; second, in appreciating the benefits and the complexities. Reducing migration, as research from the UK in a Changing Europe project has shown, has an economic cost. It may also affect UK citizens in other ways. If the UK expects reciprocal arrangements with the EU when it comes to residence rights for existing citizens, it follows that some level of reciprocity should be expected on the overall migration framework. That means as well as setting out how the UK should treat EU nationals, parties need to consider what freedoms the UK wants for its nationals too. That isn’t only the freedom to travel and to work, but also to find friendship, or to settle down with a partner in another EU member state. Millions enjoy this freedom right now, yet for non-EU spouses of UK citizens, for example, salary thresholds can prevent people being with those they love. The evidence would suggest liberalisation on family migration, for both EU and non-EU.

A period of transition, replicating the current framework for the EU in the UK immigration rules seems sensible, and buys some time. Yet a steer as to where migration rights will end up overall would help provide a clearer picture of the different Brexit scenarios. The so-called ‘barista visa’ is not a good place to start – as many pointed out when the idea was floated. Labour should set out principles for longer-term rights and significant freedoms for study, work and family.

Alongside the ‘rules’ are questions about how the government supports people and communities. Labour’s manifesto will likely be strong on integration, with funding for services and language support. This is important and has never really been pushed to the forefront of migration policy. Similarly, how the UK treats people who arrive seeking protection from conflict and persecution should feature. Labour’s 2015 manifesto committed to ending indefinite detention in the asylum and immigration system – a policy which should be repeated. On the UK’s commitments to refugees, resettlement schemes should be expanded and put on a more sustainable footing, rather than relying on pledges by the governing party from one parliament to the next.

More broadly, the politics of migration are in a state of flux, with opportunities for a more progressive approach. Some of the questions that have circulated for many years could soon be answered, for example whether ‘numbers’ are all important, or whether ‘control’ – simply having the power to control and make the decisions on who comes and who stays – would gain a majority of public support. It’s always been the case that if you can talk to people about migration for more than one minute, the potential for consensus and a progressive approach is far greater. At this moment of intense Brexit debate, the options need to be discussed.


Karl Pike

Karl Pike is a lecturer in public policy and British politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He was previously an advisor to the shadow home secretary and the shadow foreign secretary.


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