26 February 2015

Final Scores on the net migration target, and no-one’s cheering

View all news

It’s the last day of the season and the final scores are in on the net migration target – as the last set of ONS immigration stats are released before the election.

It would be hard to pretend that the crowd is on tenterhooks, argues Sunder Katwala.

It would be hard to imagine a bigger boost to the Prime Minister’s bid for re-election were the figures to miraculously fall below the 100,000 level that he promised voters last time around. Yet the chances look slimmer still than those of, say, England winning the next World Cup by beating Germany on penalties.

After all, the government never came anywhere near hitting its headline target at any point in this Parliament.

To return to the painful theme of England’s past bids for the World Cup, I doubt anybody can recall a more extravagant missing of a target since Chris Waddle ballooned his penalty practically out of the stadium when England went out of the World Cup to Germany in 1990. Credit to Waddle, he actually comes much closer than Theresa May has done.


Returning to politics, there is a simple moral to this sorry tale: careless promises cost trust.
Maybe it is easy to understand how the mistake came about in opposition ahead of the 2010 election. The Conservatives found a popular soundbite, about migration being in the “tens of thousands”, and didn’t stop to think whether they had policies that could deliver it.

But making the same mistake all over again in the 2015 manifesto would suggest that nothing has been learnt from five years experience in government.

Remaining in denial about the broken target and sticking with it, as David Cameron appears to be doing, is a hostage to fortune. The Prime Minister is setting himself up for five more years of hurt and failure, where the ONS statistics will remain a quarterly reminder to the public of why they don’t trust politicians on immigration.

Its already clear there is next to no chance of meeting the same target in the next Parliament either.

David Cameron shouldn’t try to pretend his EU immigration reforms could bridge the gap. That won’t stand up to two minutes scrutiny during the election campaign. After all, as Oxford University’s study has shown, net migration from outside the EU has always been well over 100,000 on its own every year, so the target would have been missed anyway – without any rise in EU immigration at all.

Another reason for ministers to regret the target is that they have never got any credit for the reforms that they have made – because their headline promise was so spectacularly broken.

Again, they have a chance to learn the lesson – or to repeat the mistake.
After all, David Cameron’s EU migration reforms will be broadly popular if they are proposed as a ‘fairness’ measure to promote the idea that being able to draw from the welfare ‘pot’ depends on contributing to it. But they will simply disappoint if they are sold on the ground they will reduce the ‘numbers’  as if by magic . They may or may not reduce the numbers a little, but when most EU migrants come to work, the idea these proposals might knock 150,000 off the net migration total is simply not credible.

So the government should reject calls for it to repeat a broken promise that nobody would believe again anyway – especially if those who want the pledge repeated, after five years, can’t find anything resembling a plan to meet the target they are lobbying for.

If there is anybody left who thinks promising to get net migration below 100,000 is a good idea, the simple test they must meet is showing they could have a credible plan to hit the target.

Very few people would listen to a ‘balanced budget’ group that couldn’t produce tax and spending plans.  Immigration sceptics should also be asked to answer the ‘how’ questions – otherwise they are simply asking the government to set out on mission impossible again.

Even the pressure group Migration Watch has now said that, while they backed the net migration target as sensible at the time, it would have “with hindsight” been more sensible to confine it to non-EU migration.

There is a sensible alternative to avoiding five more years of broken promises and falling trust.

Several policies to get a proper grip on managing immigration well would win backing across several parties – and could command broad public support in a way that repeating a broken promise again simply won’t.

* Increase investment in the immigration system so it can do the job in an efficient and fair way.
* Give a clear timescale for finally fixing the system on entry and exit checks.
* Remove students from the net migration figures – something which the Greens, LibDems, SNP, Labour and UKIP agree on, along with three-quarters of the British public.
* Change future immigration targets so that they cover non-EU migration, so the government can try to have a policy that could deliver on its promises. A non-EU net migration target could well be set at a level between 50,000 and 100,000 – as long as the government sensibly separated temporary student immigration out from those figures.
* Set out the reforms to EU free movement that can be delivered – and give the public the choice, in a referendum on British membership.

A government that made those promises could hope to defend its record – instead of trying to change the subject and avoid talking about immigration at all.

The Conservatives now seem to have joined Labour in wishing they could ‘change the subject’ when immigration comes up on the campaign trail, seeming to hope the issue will just go away during the General Election. Both main parties seem determined to stick to their comfort zones of talking about the economy and the NHS.  But trying not to talk about immigration is an approach that will simply frustrate a moderate British public, who can see the pressures and the benefits from immigration, but want to hear that there is a proper plan to manage it well.

The big challenge of immigration politics in the next Parliament is how to restore public trust.

As they put the finishing touches to their manifestos for 2015, all of the political parties should learn the lesson that politicians can only secure trust if they make promises they can keep.

British Future’s latest activity on Twitter