30 September 2014

Immigration – making promises you can keep

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‘Immigration: how can we make promises we can keep?’ is the core question at a Conservative Party conference immigration fringe event, hosted by ConservativeHome and British Future, writes Sunder Katwala.

Photo: Google images
Photo: Google images

You won’t find the actual title in the official fringe guide after a friendly phone call to the organisers suggested that ‘immigration: keeping our promises’ might have a better ring to it. A compromise was agreed, but the event will naturally go ahead by asking the original, mildly awkward yet politically unavoidable question.

The case for making promises you can keep can hardly be a taboo topic at the final conference season before manifesto pledges are made to the public.

The Conservatives face the challenge on immigration of having set a pledge that was popular in opposition, but which proved impossible to deliver in practice. Having set the goal in 2010, the government can’t move the goalposts during this parliament. But what could the next manifesto learn from this?

The approach to a missed target should not be to abandon the idea of targets. Targets play an important democratic role: they signal to the public what a government is trying to achieve, and offer a key indicator in assessing their performance in doing so.

There are going to be limits to migration. Britain is a popular country thanks to our growing economy, our global history and the cultural power of the English language. So we can’t take everyone who might want to come. Sensible limits would seek to identify the migration that benefits Britain and reflects our values with controls to restrict the level, pace and make-up of who we choose to let in.

Sensible targets would have three features: they would address migration which is within the control of government policy; target areas that the government does want to cap; and be set at levels which it believes can be achieved over a Parliament. Most people should be able to agree on that framework, while debating which levels to aim for, and which policies would be introduced to approach those targets.

The public could prove more sympathetic than ministers might fear to such a change next time around. ICM polling for British Future shows that 70% of the public, including 62% of Conservatives, agrees that “I would rather the government delivered on a realistic target to limit the immigration that it can control, rather than a higher target that it may not be able to meet”.

The substantive content on numbers of a future target will depend on several broader migration policy debates: are there further policies that could reduce numbers without damaging growth? Are any significant reforms to EU free movement achievable, or is leaving the club the only option for those who would like a different approach to EU migration?

Politicians want to restore trust on immigration. Setting the right targets is a key part of that. Promises that can be kept have a chance of restoring trust. Promises that can’t be kept risk simply eroding it further.

This article first appeared on ConservativeHome

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