Honesty needed in the immigration debate
Ed Miliband’s speech to IPPR today shows that he is bold enough to engage in a more sophisticated debate on immigration. His speech recognised Labour’s lack of engagement with voters’ immigration concerns.
The UK desperately needs a rational assessment of the effects of immigration in the political arena, with particular attention to evidence. He referred to academic evidence from the Migration Advisory Committee and recent work by King’s College on social care but also engaged with the very real experience of individual voters. Miliband explained that while the impact of immigration on wage levels and jobs does not have what economists call a negative aggregate effect, “people don’t live their lives at the aggregate level”.
Given this evidence, the question is why so many employers prefer to hire foreign-born workers, particularly in light of the numbers of unemployed young people. In other words, how can we reduce the demand for immigration, rather than the supply? The Conservative answer is that employers prefer foreign-born workers because the welfare system has made British-born workers dependent. On this view, the solution is to cut benefits, which will give the unemployed more incentive to compete with immigrants for low-paid jobs. Labour’s answer, which Ed Miliband set out clearly for the first time today, is that it is the nature of our economic model, rather than our feckless or welfare-dependent young people, that encourages employers to prefer foreign-born workers.
His speech represents a new attempt by Labour to define a genuinely progressive position on immigration. From a policy point of view, let alone a political perspective, this is a difficult trick to pull off – migration is an issue where the progressive question is not ‘are there benefits?’, but ‘who benefits?’ Necessarily, that means engaging with some real trade-offs between different objectives (would we accept a lower rate of economic growth in order to make communities more cohesive?) and between groups (what costs are we prepared to impose on business in order to protect the most vulnerable workers?). It also means looking well beyond the narrow confines of ‘immigration policy’ to consider how migration fits with our economy, public services, communities and our sense of identity.
Miliband’s new tone on immigration may attract votes, but will it pass muster as an economic policy? It implies far more active state intervention in the labour market, including in private sector employment practices, than British voters have tended to support in recent decades. Miliband, writing on responsible capital for IPPR’s journal Juncture, shows that his thinking goes further than the issue of immigration.
Today’s speech did not by any means set out a comprehensive progressive immigration policy. Nor was it the U-turn on immigration policy that much of the media is suggesting, although the ‘mea culpa’ for parts of Labour’s record was important, and it was part of a significant change in direction on economic policy. Not all of the policies set out in the speech will be effective in practice, and those of us who recognise the benefits that migration has brought, and will bring, to the UK may regret that it is politically necessary to pre-judge questions like migration after further EU accession. In short, there is still plenty of work for think tanks like IPPR to do in developing a set of migration policies for the UK that would deliver on progressive values.