There is a great deal to disagree with in David Goodhart's much-discussed book on post-war immigration to the UK, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration.1 Others have already set out rebuttals of a number of the arguments made in the book, on history, economics and international development,2 among other things (I am sure much to the author's satisfaction - he sets out, at least in part, to provoke3).
But the UK debate on immigration needs more consensus, not less. In this response, I start by focusing on a few of the fundamental points on which I think most people on the left (and others) agree with Goodhart. I then go on to consider some of the implications of this emerging consensus for a new centre-left approach to immigration policy. Although it is important to learn the lessons of the past, it is both more productive and more urgent for policymakers and politicians to focus on the very real challenges of the future.
More consensus than contention
Goodhart describes his book as 'an attempt to persuade liberals that large-scale, poorly managed, immigration can damage the social contract, and that national attachments are a necessary condition of any realistic centre-left project'.
While there are some on the liberal left (and the liberal right) who, for a variety of reasons, would still take some convincing of this basic proposition, the mainstream centre-left is already persuaded. In some ways, Goodhart's book feels as if it is addressing the 'liberal left' of a decade ago.4 The political and policy ramifications of the UK's decision not to impose transitional controls on migrants from countries that joined the EU in 2004, the economic crisis that began in 2008, and Labour's 2010 election defeat have prompted many on the left to rethink their positions on immigration. Many others have always shared Goodhart's key concerns in any case. IPPR and others on the left have been arguing for some years that the priority is to build a new mainstream consensus on migration,5 and the key components of this are now starting to emerge.
The first is that the primary objective of UK migration policy should be to benefit the UK.6 The political mainstream in the UK (on both left and right) has in fact always taken this view.7 Some in the immigration debate do have less UK-centric concerns, including international business, but there is now widespread acceptance on the left at least that serving the needs of the economy (let alone the country) is not the same as acceding to the demands of business, on immigration or anything else.
Of course, accepting 'national interest' as the objective still leaves plenty of space for debate and disagreement. There are real questions about how national interest is defined, and how the interests of different groups are weighed within it (in the case of immigration there is also a real question about who counts as part of the nation, of which more later), and about how that national interest is best served. It is also true to say, as Goodhart does, that politicians have done a poor job in recent years of convincing the public either that immigration policy is designed to serve the national interest or that it succeeds in doing so.
The second component of consensus is that society matters, and that immigration has important social impacts (both positive and negative). There is some truth in Goodhart's argument that the liberal left has in recent years felt an 'ambivalence about community', with a focus on individual freedoms and entitlements sometimes overshadowing any account of the institutions (broadly defined) that bind local and national communities. It is certainly arguable that the 'liberal left' of the last couple of decades, including Labour in government, became overly focused on the economy and too willing to trade off social costs for economic benefits. This was true of immigration policy, something that was made worse by the fact that, while the economic benefits were widely (if not evenly) spread, the social impacts were concentrated in communities that often lacked the resources to cope or respond.
But the economic and political weather of recent years has prompted a rethink on the left - Labour, for example, is now addressing itself seriously again to the challenge of how to build stronger communities and a more cohesive society, under the 'One Nation' banner.8
For Goodhart, immigration and society collide in the 'progressive dilemma' - the argument that diversity erodes social solidarity, and thus undermines the institutions that support cohesive local and national communities (and in particular the welfare state). Some version of this dilemma is preoccupying many on the left in the UK, the most obvious recent manifestation being the debate about EU migrants' access to the benefit system in a context where public support for that system appears to be waning.
However, there are two important caveats. The first is that the evidence of the progressive dilemma (much of which comes from the US) is mixed - the argument that more diversity causes a decline in social solidarity or undermines the welfare state is unproven. The second is that it is unclear what role immigration itself plays in creating the progressive dilemma. Diversity is not just about immigration: it is clear, as Goodhart acknowledges, that immigration is at most one factor among many, alongside wider social changes caused by capitalism or consumerism, increasing economic inequality, changes in family structures, and so on. The progressive dilemma is in fact much wider than simply 'immigration versus social solidarity' - to argue that it can be solved by reducing immigration is to seek an easy way out. The question to be answered is not how we move to a 'post-liberal' position, but how we reconcile the pluralism of the contemporary world with our desire to live in communities (local and national) which conserve and protect as well as liberate and empower.
There is an emerging (though still heavily contested) answer on the left as to how to respond to this wider 'progressive dilemma'. This entails a greater focus on fairness (as perceived by the public), as well as equality, alongside an increased emphasis on values, culture and community.
In the context of welfare policy, for example, this would mean making the benefits system more contributory, something that could help answer public concerns about migrants' access to benefits. In any case, in the current UK context any answer to these concerns can only come from changes to the benefit system, at least in the short term - non-EU migrants' access to benefits is already very limited, and EU migrants' access is governed by EU rules about equal treatment. There is no evidence that migrants' use of benefits is sufficient reason to change the whole welfare system,9 but insofar as some migrants' ability to access benefits without substantial contribution is a specific example of a wider public concern about fairness, a policy change responding to that wider concern would also help to resolve the specific one about migration.
The third component of consensus is that integration is essential, both to increase the benefits of immigration for the UK and to lessen some of the divisions that form part of the progressive dilemma. In line with Goodhart's argument, there is an increasing recognition, across the political spectrum but particularly on the left, that the UK's integration policy is not fit for purpose and is failing some migrant groups and some towns and local communities.
This is not to say that integration itself has been a failure - as Goodhart acknowledges, many groups have integrated successfully, though this has largely been down to communities themselves, rather than any great success of policy. There is also widespread political (and public) support for a model of integration that rejects both assimilation and separatism, in which diverse communities are supported to maintain their identities, but where 'playing by the rules' is non-negotiable, interaction with local and national communities is expected from everyone, and our national history and culture are celebrated - integration is a two-way street, but newcomers are expected to travel rather further down it than pre-existing communities.
Although there is increasing recognition of the problem, and agreement about the objective, there is less consensus about the appropriate policy response. This is in part because integration policy is, by its nature, difficult - the state cannot, as Goodhart puts it 'mandate integration', so there is an urgent need for new thinking about the role of policy in removing barriers to integration and supporting the day-to-day interactions that create thriving communities.10
The final component of the emerging immigration consensus on the left is that numbers matter. It is not enough to set immigration rules and then take no view on the pace and pattern of migration flows that result. It is possible to believe both that immigration has generally been beneficial and that more would not necessarily be better - both the benefits and costs are non-linear.
Goodhart is, self-evidently, correct when he says that '[the UK] has a great capacity to absorb newcomers, but not a limitless one'. However, the UK's 'absorptive capacity' (to use his term) is contingent, not fixed - contingent on the characteristics of the 'newcomers' and the rules governing their arrival and stay, and on the nature of our economy and society and the wider policy frameworks that shape it. It is contingent on how well we respond to the 'progressive dilemma' discussed above, and on the success or failure of integration. In general, an increased capacity to absorb migrants is a sign of success - a dynamic, open, tolerant and socially just country will be able to manage (and benefit from) a higher level of migration than a backward-looking, closed, intolerant and socially unjust one.
Agreement that numbers matter still leaves plenty of room for disagreement over both what the 'right number' is, and what exactly it is about the numbers that matters. Is a high but stable level of immigration easier to manage than a lower but less predictable level? Is net or gross immigration more important? My answers would diverge substantially from those suggested in The British Dream, and I want to move now to a brief discussion of one key difference of views, which illustrates the fact that, while there may be important areas of consensus about immigration on the left, a great deal of hard thinking and difficult debate about policy remains to be done.
Tensions and trade-offs
The really difficult questions of immigration policy (and politics) arise when confronting the challenge of striking the right balance in the face of very real trade-offs and tensions, whether between competing objectives, or between the interests of different groups. Goodhart identifies some of these tensions and trade-offs, but on the question of immigration policy his answers are too simplistic. A brief consideration of the right balance for the UK between temporary and permanent migration illustrates some of the difficulties that policymakers face in practice.
Goodhart argues that the UK should continue to bear down on net migration (the difference between immigration and emigration), in line with the current government's target of reducing this to less than 100,000 a year. This target places the question of temporary versus permanent migration at the centre of the policy debate - reducing net migration to the levels envisaged by the government means increasing emigration as well as decreasing immigration, which means that policies limiting migrants' ability to extend their stay or settle permanently in the UK have increasing prominence in the policy debate. Following this argument, Goodhart suggests that the UK can, and should, be flexible and open to temporary migration, while reducing permanent migration.11 This will, he argues, allow the UK to continue to reap many of the economic benefits of a flexible immigration policy, while also providing the basis for increased social solidarity based on a clearly drawn line between the rights and entitlements of citizens and those of 'visitors', with stronger preferences and protections for the former. This sounds like a 'win-win', but it is not clear that it would deliver the economic and social outcomes envisaged.
The economic trade-offs cannot be managed so easily. Although much of the economic benefit from migration does come from a system that is flexible enough to allow people to come and go (for example within the EU), and many of the most economically 'valuable' migrants stay in the UK only in the short term (for example, highly skilled people transferred within multinational companies), there are real economic costs associated with preventing people from settling in the longer term. Even if the world's 'brightest and the best' move around fairly flexibly, and often return home in the end, they are likely, all else being equal, to favour destinations which at least give them the option of long-term settlement.
It is also the case that temporary migration doesn't solve (and may worsen) the dual challenges of generating social solidarity and achieving successful integration. If diversity is a challenge for social solidarity, so is change, and population turnover at a local or national level undermines the shared identities that support communities and institutions. Integrating short-term migrants, who have fewer incentives and opportunities to find their place in UK society, is an even more difficult challenge than integrating long-term migrants.
On both these issues, Goodhart risks 'fighting the last war'. While the inflexibility of some post-war migration (for example, large-scale permanent migration from Pakistan into northern mill towns with declining industrial bases) arguably lies at the root of the economic and social challenges facing some communities today; it is the flexibility and transience of much contemporary migration that causes many others (for example, the ability and willingness of short-term migrants from eastern Europe to work for low levels of pay).
The vision of reduced permanent but increased temporary migration also raises two very difficult questions for policymakers in practice, both of which Goodhart acknowledges but neither of which he answers. The first is how and where to draw the line between citizens and 'visitors'. Whatever the potential gains, we lose something in terms of solidarity and equality when we draw these lines (as the debate about universalism in welfare recognises). At one extreme, nobody on the left should be arguing for a society in which 'visitors' are denied basic rights (as guest workers in some of the Gulf states are, for example). At the other, there is a strong case, as set out above, for basing the benefits system more strongly on contribution, which would restrict the rights of recently arrived or short-term migrants to access it. But that leaves a whole range of questions unanswered in between. For example, the principle of 'free at the point of use' underpins people's everyday interactions with the NHS - any system that could rigorously limit and police the entitlements of temporary migrants to use it would also affect the experience of all other users in fundamental ways.12
The second practical challenge is more basic, but no less difficult: enforcing and policing temporary migration schemes is very difficult (as the German gastarbeiter - or 'guest worker' - experience demonstrates). In very simple terms, it is much easier to stop someone entering a country than it is to compel them to leave.
Finally, it is not clear that increasingly temporary migration is in line with what the British public want.13 It is striking that the group of migrants currently raising most public concern (those from within the EU) are mostly in the UK only temporarily.14
Despite its attempts to provoke, The British Dream in fact reflects arguments that have already become, or are fast becoming, the basis for a new centre-left consensus on immigration. The question now is how to turn these broad arguments into detailed policy. But, as illustrated by the issue of temporary and permanent migration, policymakers face more difficult trade-offs than the book concedes - this is complex, and highly political, territory. David Goodhart has made his pitch for where some lines should be drawn and trade-offs made, but there are other legitimate answers to these questions, and making choices between the different policy options on the table will ultimately be a matter of politics.
Political dilemmas for the centre left
I want to conclude with some brief reflections on the political dilemmas that migration now poses for the centre-left in the UK. It is clear that an effective centre-left policy response to immigration will need to be much more nuanced than the position presently adopted by the government ('reduce net migration'), and will need to go beyond the confines of immigration policy in the narrow sense to take in reform of the welfare system, labour market regulations, the housing market, and so on. This poses three key political challenges for the left in light of public concerns about immigration, concerns that seem to have been a key driver of the recent electoral success of Ukip.
The first is to explain a broad approach to policy without appearing to 'change the subject' by being always willing to talk about other issues but never tackling the question of immigration directly. This is why, as argued above, 'numbers matter'. It is also why effective responses to the institutional and practical failings of the immigration system are so important.
The second is to situate the conversation about migration in a wider debate about fairness. This brings together the other elements of the consensus set out above: a clear focus on the national interest (which addresses the question of fairness in the sense of prioritising UK interests); an understanding of how immigration can impact on social solidarity (which comes to the question of fairness in the sense of contribution and reciprocity); and integration (which directly addresses the question of defining a fair 'quid pro quo' between existing communities and new arrivals).
The third is to move beyond the 'policy reflex' that tends to dominate politics on the left (perhaps particularly with a generation of political leaders who cut their teeth in Whitehall during Labour's years in government) and find a new political language that speaks to values and culture - some aspects of the integration debate, for example, will never be addressed effectively through policy alone.
Of course, this is all easier said than done, but most on the left now understand the scale of the challenge. Although the public and political debate about immigration is often polarised, an emerging consensus on the left offers hope both for new approaches to migration policy and for a new kind of politics of immigration in the UK.
This article appears in issue 20(1) of Juncture, IPPR's journal for rethinking the centre-left, out shortly.
2 See, for example: Sunder Katwala and David Goodhart, 'The British Dream: a review, and the author's response', Open Democracy, 18 April 2013; Kenan Malik, 'The problem is not immigration. It's the obsession with it', 20 April 2013; Claire Melamed, 'Being wrong, wrong, wrong about migration: David Goodhart in the Guardian', Global Dashboard, 1 April 2013. ^back
3 A frank and open debate about immigration is essential (Gordon Brown's reaction to his conversation with Gillian Duffy during the 2010 election campaign was significant because it demonstrated how some on the left have sometimes seemed to shut down such a debate) but the left needs to be wary of 'over-correcting' in the way it discusses migration and race, and losing its ability (gained via decades of anti-racism campaigning) to discuss these issues without the suggestion of racism: provocation of the 'liberal left' is not without risks. ^back
5 See for example Finch T and Mulley S (2009) 'Navigating the migration debate out of a dangerous cul-de-sac', Public Policy Research, 16(2): 120-126.^back
6 With the possible exception of asylum and refugee policy, which is governed by international humanitarian obligations. ^back
7 Although Goodhart sets out a supposedly influential 'globalist' alternative, the UK policy record (on immigration and other issues) shows no sign of ever being significantly influenced by this view. Ultimately, anyone considering the question of immigration must accept discrimination in favour of nationals as a legitimate starting point, or argue for completely open borders. ^back
8 This is not just a challenge for the left, although it is perhaps felt more deeply on the left as a question of policy at the moment, in part because the 'Big Society' vision of the Conservative party is based on the premise that 'society' best flourishes via the withdrawal of the state, rather than through any act of government. ^back
9 Rather the reverse; EU migrants (the group under discussion in the current debate) are substantial net contributors to the UK public purse. ^back
11 Goodhart's book leaves slightly open the question of why, in his view, the real 'problem' is permanent migration or net migration (rather than temporary migration or gross levels of immigration) - it seems to be some combination of concerns about the pressures placed on resources (such as housing) by a rising population, and particular worries about the kind of migrants to the UK who are (or have historically been) more likely to settle in the long term (namely migrants from poorer countries). ^back
12 Not to mention raising a whole host of implementation issues around data, IT and the role of NHS staff. ^back
13 When polled, more people in the UK believe that legal migrants should be given the opportunity to stay permanently than believe that they should be admitted temporarily and then be required to return to their country of origin (see Transatlantic Trends Immigration Survey 2011). ^back
14 It is also worth noting that these migrants come from countries that are, in relative terms, wealthy and culturally similar to the UK.^back
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