Britain becoming a one-party state focused on fewer migrants
As Ukip fades from the political arena, its policy of immigration reduction prospers
Nigel Farage: after he retired as leader of Ukip, the Conservative Party effectively took up his Brexit policies.
One of the unforeseen consequences of last June’s Brexit referendum was the subsequent wholesale adoption of the Ukip policy platform by the ruling Tory government.
Nigel Farage retired from being the leader of Ukip and effectively began presiding over Conservative policy, best summed up as “Brexit at any cost”. One of the more foreseeable outcomes of that rather weird turn of events has been the demise of Ukip itself.
If the government of the day is implementing your manifesto then you are doomed to irrelevance. Ukip’s slide back into the political wilderness was confirmed this week in two byelections that also piled further pressure on the almost equally irrelevant Labour party.
The UK is fast becoming a one-party state, albeit one with a set of policies that have never been formally approved by the electorate. “Brexit at any cost” has also been widely interpreted as code for “less immigration at any cost”. And those who advocate in this way got a boost this week with some preliminary evidence that suggested immigration into the UK has already begun to fall.
It’s early days but the latest annual immigration numbers now include the three months following the Brexit referendum. Net migration fell by 49,000, helped by both increased emigration and lower numbers moving to the UK. One chilling aspect of the numbers was a sharp fall – 41,000 – in the number of overseas students arriving in Britain: it was the lowest total since 2002. If this is the start of a trend then it represents a massive own goal: higher education is one of the few large, long-term success stories of the UK economy. Fees from overseas students have risen steadily and now represent an important and all too rare source of export earnings growth.
Nobody knows why more people are leaving the UK, and fewer arriving, but many commentators have been quick to point to evidence of a rise in hate crimes and, more generally, a less welcoming atmosphere.
Theresa May once famously referred to the Conservatives as the “nasty party”. Given the new, one-party state, perhaps it is a nasty country. Maybe in an attempt to head off such unkind thoughts, Brexit minister David Davis was quick to argue that Britain’s economy will for some time continue to need lots of low-skilled immigrants. That’s both pragmatic and true but sits uneasily with where the government wants the overall immigration numbers to go.
Britain has an immigration minister who gave a tentative welcome to the news. He expressed the hope that we have witnessed the start of a trend that will see the numbers fall to the “tens of thousands” in the post-Brexit future.
A spokesperson for the prime minister also welcomed the tentative signs of an early fall in immigration. Of course, the economic need for cheap (and not so cheap) labour in the education, agricultural, hospitality and healthcare sectors is not something that is easily squared with a strategy designed squarely at eliminating large-scale immigration.
The problem with targets is that once you put them into the headlines there will always be consequences – whether you hit them or not. David Cameron’s publicly stated desire to reduce annual immigration below 100,000 a year regularly came back to haunt him each year he failed to deliver.
And we can only wonder how much bigger the crisis in the NHS would have been if he had managed to achieve his targets: where would all of those doctors, nurses and many other kinds of essential workers have come from? What would the university sector look like?
The latest numbers are consistent with anecdotal evidence that some employers – farmers and universities for example – are finding it harder to persuade EU citizens to take up jobs
Good barristers only ever ask questions to which they already know the answer. Targets are a bit like that: be sure to set those that you know how to hit and what will happen when you do.
Immigration has now been extensively studied: there is lots of excellent data that reveals robust conclusions over many different pieces of research. According to, for example, the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance, EU immigrants are more likely to be in work and less likely to claim benefits than their UK-born counterparts.
Up to 44 per cent have some form of higher education, compared to 23 per cent of the UK-born. One-third of EU immigrants live in Remain-voting London. Jobs and wages have suffered in some regions over the last decade but that has virtually nothing to do with immigration.
The global financial crisis is the biggest culprit. EU migrants pay more in taxes than they take out in benefits. So when people complain about queues in GP surgeries “caused by migrants” that’s a failure of funding, not a reason to target those immigrants.
Prof Jonathan Portes is another leading researcher who has extensively studied the data. He forecasts the government’s targets are actually now achievable, particularly if the labour market loosens over the next few years, as seems likely.
But he cautions that you need to be careful about what you wish for. Consistent with the research from the LSE, he thinks the probable success in meeting immigration targets will come at a huge cost in terms of both economic growth and tax revenues.
The best advice for any government thinking about immigration targets is this: don’t. That doesn’t mean don’t think about immigration policy: broad principles will do. Targets will come back to haunt you and absorb energy much better directed elsewhere. Ireland can quietly celebrate the fact that few of us are either aware or care that we have proportionately more immigrants than the UK.