Labour’s immigration muddle, and a conference of confusion

Posted on 4 October 2011

By Sunder Katwala

The Labour Party does not know what to say about immigration, or how to think about the subject.

The Coalition cap is symbolically popular, but they are unlikely to achieve the Conservative goal of bringing net migration down to 100,000 a year during the Parliament.

Does Labour voice the anxieties of businesses and universities who fear that tightening the cap further could set back the recovery? Or do they challenge the government’s ability to deliver on its promise? What was the lesson of Gordon Brown’s advocacy of British jobs for British workers? To not promise what can’t be delivered? Or was the problem that the government simply didn’t try to do what it said?

The Labour conference risked deepening the party’s confusions as leading thinkers appeared more interested in the rhetoric of immigration policy than the reality. Both Demos director David Goodhart and Blue Labour guru Maurice Glasman sought to persuade Labour to become a firmly immigration-sceptic party, yet the two made policy proposals which even they had to acknowledge are unworkable.

David Goodhart, making one of his first public appearances since his appointment as director of the liberal think-tank Demos, opened a Fabian fringe at Liverpool Town Hall. Goodhart proposed that Labour challenge the Coalition with its own alternative immigration cap. His pitch was that this would target gross immigration rather than net immigration, limiting the numbers allowed in to 150,000 – 200,000 people a year. He argued that this would promote greater opportunity, particularly for young people who are not in work, education or training. He spoke too about an “immigration pause” (though it was unclear what form this might take) and opposed Turkish membership of the EU.

Hazel Blears declared that the Goodhart cap “would play well on the doorstep” but the former Cabinet minister said she couldn’t see how it would work. Nor could the audience, it would seem, as they gave the proposal just one vote.

Goodhart later acknowledged that his proposed level was much too low to be workable, after it was pointed out that emigration each year runs at twice that level. He told twitter users he had been about 100,000 out, expressing frustration that his initial mistaken proposal was reported by David Aaronovitch in The Times. (The columnist legitimately defended his accurate report, having no reason to suspect that the author was already minded to retract his proposal). The episode highlighted the problems with the ‘Dragon’s Den’ two-minute pitch fringe format, which clearly does not lend itself to fully worked-out proposals.

Goodhart told me that the idea behind his pitch was that a gross cap could achieve similar outcomes to current Conservative Party policy without the policy being subject to the vagaries of emigration.

But Goodhart’s moderated proposal of a 300,000 cap would still represent an enormous tightening of immigration policy, compared to what the Coalition government is hoping to do. It would slash immigration by half, while the Tory party hopes for a modest reduction closer to 15%. (Remember that reducing net migration to 100,000 is a Conservative ‘ambition’, not Coalition policy.)

According to my calculations, to ‘match’ the Conservative goal, a “Goodhart cap” should pitch a gross immigration limit of between 450,000 and 500,000.  (The Tory net migration ambition would have been achieved by a gross immigration cap as low as 436,000 in 2010, because emigration of 336,000 was at its lowest level for several years. It would have allowed 527,000 people in during 2008.) Even a gross migration target aiming for zero net migration would be somewhat higher than Goodhart’s 300,000 cap.

Calling for a gross immigration target which would bite much more deeply than current policy would be a substantive proposal, with both advocates and opponents of such a move. There is a world of difference between an immigration cap set at 300,000 and one set at 450,000 – in policy terms, and in the difference it would make to a hundred and fifty thousand lives.

The sharp questions in immigration policy may well revolve around how far the Coalition government decides that its current immigration measures are sufficient, even if the net migration target is missed. Translating the net target into a gross figure seems pointless, doing little to address the dilemmas of whether or how the goal can be met. Such a policy would attract none of the symbolic public popularity enjoyed by Cameron’s ’100,000′ target.

The 100,000 figure was not chosen after an exhaustive study of economic and social impacts, but was the product of ‘think of a number’ thinking. The soundbite commitment to reduce net migration “to tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands” tested rather well, making a reasoned appeal to public opinion on the need to lower migration, while avoiding the tonality of the Michael Howard “are you thinking what we’re thinking” campaign of 2005.

The soundbite appeals partly because the use of net migration makes the proposed number sound lower. Many will hear a suggestion that immigration will be under 100,000, with little idea of the technical difference between net and gross immigration. (The parties know too that proposals such as “a penny on tax to fund the NHS” leads many people to think that the total cost is 1p per voter). I doubt Andy Coulson would have been persuaded by advice that the Tory policy would have been more popular if it had said: “We know its going to be difficult in practice. Many of the experts tell us that it can’t be done. But I say to the British people that we can reduce immigration from 575,000 to 475,000”

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Another leading Labour immigration sceptic is Maurice Glasman, the recently ennobled peer whose Blue Labour project fascinates the party intelligentsia.

During the summer Glasman called for a temporary ban on immigration, and to rethink free movement across the European Union.  He then retracted the comments, saying he had been speaking casually, and “was not calling for what I thought should happen”.

Others associated with Blue Labour made clear that the immigration ban was Maurice being Maurice, while Glasman declared a “summer of silence” so as to repair relationships with allies, paying more attention to substance and less to media profile.

Despite the glorious sunshine beating down on Liverpool all week, the summer – and so the silence – was evidently over for Glasman. He was a ubiquitous presence on the Labour fringe, surprising his allies by repeating his call to end free movement across the EU in a Channel Four news interview.  The retraction had apparently been retracted, in large measure at least.

At a Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Trust fringe meeting, Glasman said that there was some case for saying that Britain shared an economic space with France and Germany, but clearly not true of Poland.  As there is no chance of reversing the enlargement of the EU, this appears to another proposal that isn’t meant to happen.

Glasman cannot convince other migration sceptics that this approach is worth pursuing. Sir Andrew Green of Migraton Watch has called it “over the top” and completely unworkable. The Labour leadership is very clear that they will not be pursuing this, though frontbenchers last week did not express that real world view as robustly as Migration Watch had.

If the proposal is serious, Glasman should offer some hints about what his new rules might look like, and his political strategy to rewrite the European Treaties on Blue Labour principles. What might persuade the governments and people of Poland or the Czech Republic to change their status?  Would this impede the free movement of capital or just labour?

Few things could interest Glasman less than an intergovernmental conference or a Treaty revision protocol. His instinctive response may be that these are not questions for him to answer – since his project is to respect the processes and outcomes of an associational politics.  The instinct to root his politics in local concerns and communities is attractive, but captures how far Blue Labour has lacked any serious engagement with multilateralism, or any proper account of how to link its own politics of grassroots association with the realities of multi-layered and multinational governance. Instinctively, Blue Labour may feel that these institutions are more part of the problem than the solution, but Blue Labour in one town hall, or Blue Labour in one country, clearly isn’t enough if Glasman wants the EU treaties and rules rewritten.

Back in the real world, there are a range of issues which Glasman could engage with around workers’ rights directives and the social dimension of the EU. Roger Liddle of Policy Network, also a Labour peer, argued that Blue Labour’s agenda required a stronger Social Europe, and warned supporters against joining those who wish to undermine that project. Glasman nodded vigorously, telling Liddle in response that he was absolutely in favour of making the EU institutions work, but fully acknowledged his need to “find better language” to express the idea.  Was this another retraction? Nobody on the panel or the audience could quite tell.

Removing free movement from the EU Treaties is fantasy politics. Britain has the democratic option to leave the club, or renegotiate different terms of access. Here, the barrier is again the democratic one, of securing sufficient political and public consent in the UK for the proposition of risking our rights to go there as well as theirs to come here.

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What does this debate about gross and net migration show us?

It lays bare the problems of reducing the immigration debate to a numbers game. “Think of a number” makes no sense as policy advocacy if it is not combined with at least some signposts as to the approach to bring about the desired level. It leaves out far too much – from the importance of taking integration as seriously as border control, to the public interest in making the immigration system work in an effective, fair and timely manner.

Secondly, it shows that the government is rather more pro-immigration than it can sometimes sound. The main immigration restricting position in mainstream British politics is in favour of getting numbers down so as to leave a positive net migration of 100,000 people a year. Matt Cavanagh of ippr has called the position a “pro-immigration but less of it” policy, rather than an anti-immigration one.

If Damian Green and David Cameron want to keep about five-sixths of the immigration we currently have, their public advocacy needs to legitimise the immigration they think is good for Britain, as well as explaining the reductions they propose. So Green has advocated the government’s case in a highly moderate tone. He was in Ghana last week, speaking glowingly about the contribution of Ghanain immigration to Britain, making a case for tightening policy while being open to the “brightest and best”. Green has turned down the volume on the subject, compared to at least some of his Labour predecessors, even while charged with tightening the policy regime further.

Thirdly, the fringe debates show the limits of a “why can’t we talk about immigration” conversation. Goodhart and Glasman make different proposals, informed by different worldviews.  Both also express the concern that the immigration debate can be too tightly policed.

I share their general concern that we all need to do more to open up the immigration debate rather than to close it down. It would help if there was considerably less jumping to attribute hidden conspiratorial motivations to those with different views – something that both sceptical and liberal voices can be guilty of.

But that interest in a more open debate isn’t a persuasive defence of purely rhetorical advocacy. If you run a think-tank, or lead a political project, and you choose to advocate 5p off the basic rate of income tax, you would always expect to be asked how you propose to do it. Why should it be any different with immigration?

Blue Labour’s caution about immigration can add to the party’s discussion on how to engage with people’s fear of losing out from economic and social change (though probably not through headline-grabbers like the call to halt all immigration).

But the combined effect of Glasman and Goodhart meant that Labour left Liverpool possibly a little bit more confused about what to do and say on immigration than when it arrived.

I guess there is always next year.

This article was first published by Our Kingdom. View it here.