Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
This parliament will see the biggest changes in immigration policy for half a century. With the prize of the Prime Minister’s election mandate comes the ownership of this reset moment for immigration policy.
New research from British Future and the Policy Institute at Kings College London shows that most voters are “Balancers” on immigration, seeing both pressures and gains. The public salience of immigration has fallen significantly since 2016, becoming the ninth most important issue for voters at the last General Election.
The Conservative manifesto talks about “offering a balanced package of measures that is fair, firm and compassionate”. This was reflected in its conscious cycling through different themes: the “control” offered by an Australian-style points-based system; the importance for “contribution” of Global Britain welcoming the skills we need; and “compassion” involving a commitment to the principle of refugee protection, securing the status of Europeans in Britain and acknowledging the shame of the Windrush scandal (with the manifesto pledging a prominent new memorial to properly acknowledge the Windrush generation’s contribution to the UK).
Those “Balancer” slogans were well crafted for the Conservative electoral coalition of 2019. Can the government now navigate the challenges which could knock the balancing act off course?
The government’s Balancer instinct is that a new global UK immigration system, if it is more restrictive than EU free movement, can also be more open than the non-EU rules we have now.
One of Boris Johnson’s first acts as Prime Minister was to ditch Theresa May’s persistently unsuccessful net migration target. Downing Street explained that the new Prime Minister “did not want to play a numbers game” – because this new Balancer government wanted to see some flows of migration fall, and others rise. This Prime Minister rarely misses any opportunity to declare that he wants Britain to be “a giant magnet” for scientists from around the world, while curbing low-skilled migration from the EU.
Dropping that one-size-fits-all target has unlocked the broad cross-party and public consensus on the gains of student and skilled migration – with more liberal rules to enable more overseas students to work in the UK after graduating from a British university.
But few of the political headaches of making immigration policy come from deciding whether scientists or sports stars, doctors or nurses can get visas. Many of the challenging choices about migration for work are about mid-skill and low-skill migration. The government’s new proposals take a more pragmatic approach to mid-skill work than the 2018 White Paper, reducing the salary threshold to £25,600, with exceptions for shortage occupations, and lower thresholds for younger workers too.
The government’s approach largely chimes with public intuitions: the Prime Minister has a good shot at success if the test is public consent for the choices his government makes about different types of migration. But it is less likely to deliver any significant fall in overall numbers. The proposed policies are more liberal on non-EU migration – which is high and rising – while curbing EU net migration, which has already fallen to its lowest level for a decade.
Could stoking up a more polarised debate about immigration be a tempting tactic to prevent “Red Wall” voters going back to Labour? The new ICM research shows that most of Boris Johnson’s new voters are part of the Balancer majority – who worry about the pace of change and support selective controls, while welcoming migrant skills that the NHS and economy need.
Polarising on immigration would have costs. It would mean more conflict with business and would undermine the “Global Britain” brand of Johnson’s vision for Brexit. There would be electoral risks too. The 2019 “realignment” succeeded where the 2017 Conservative election campaign fell short – but the think-tank Onward has argued that the both/and challenge is to deliver for “Workington Man”, narrowing the electoral generation gap and broadening the Conservative’s appeal to minority voters too.
This could lead the government to deepen the “Balancer” agenda, not to abandon it. That might involve a new deal with business, asking employers to step up and play their role in rebuilding public confidence in immigration. Companies could offer more hands-on support for local integration and learning English; and link strategies to develop home-grown skills more closely with the pragmatic use of migration for shortage occupations. Government could seek a new consensus on actively promoting citizenship for those who live in Britain long-term.
The reduced heat in the immigration debate suggests that the post-referendum debate has been cathartic. Taking back control involves making detailed choices about the immigration that Britain wants – and suggests a responsibility to welcome the immigration that we have chosen to keep.