As the next election begins to loom into view, the issue of immigration continues to pose a challenge for liberal progressives of all political persuasions. A new report published today by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) makes a rich and valuable contribution to this essential debate on the future of British migration policy.
There are few politicians who would disagree with the report’s urgent call to “actively engage[e] with the issue of migration – and the reality of people’s views on it”. The extent to which the political ‘elite’ have avoided talking about immigration has been exaggerated by migration sceptics. But there is no doubt that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have struggled to convey their approach to the issue in language that resonates with the wider public.
The paper also points to a more fundamental challenge for policy – the lack of clarity about the objectives of migration policy. I agree, as would many Liberal Democrats, with much of what the authors suggest about the progressive principles that should underpin policy in this area – governments should set fair and consistent rules and implement them competently, should make policy with a view to increasing both the economic and social benefits of migration, and take account of its impact on inequality and social mobility.
However, from a liberal progressive perspective there is one hugely important omission in the principles outlined in the paper – liberty or, more specifically, the freedom of people to migrate. Any consideration of the trade-offs inevitable in the development of an effective and fair migration policy must also look at the impact of a particular policy on an individual’s freedom of movement.
Take for example the challenge of weighing up the impact of immigration on inequality. The report comes close to endorsing inequality as the key principle for setting immigration policy, stating:
“Migration should be designed wherever possible to reduce (or at least not increase) inequality and to promote (or at least not hinder) social mobility.”
This implies that immigration should be reduced if it is contributing to increased inequality. But a liberal progressive would have concerns about the reduction in the freedom of movement that migration restrictions would entail. All things being equal, a liberal progressive approach would seek other forms of mitigation for inequality rather than simply curbing migration (to be fair, this is a possibility which the paper also recognises).
EU migration is a good example of this dilemma. The report rightly points to the immense practical difficulties in curbing EU migration, and calls for realism from UK politicians on this issue. But this implies that if these difficulties could be overcome, there would be no principled barrier to curbing EU migration if it were increasing inequality, or having other negative consequences for the UK. In contrast, a liberal progressive would start from a presumption that inequality is best tackled by other measures, because of the innate value of the hard-won freedom of movement within the EU.
I am not suggesting that the UK’s migration policy should be developed around a romantic internationalist ideal of freedom of movement. Rather, it should be grounded in the reality that decisions the UK makes about immigration directly impact on the freedoms of its own citizens.
This is most obvious in the EU example, given above where introducing restrictions, or outright withdrawal, would jeopardise the position of the estimated 1 million Britons who live in the EU (not to mention the many second home owners who do not live there full time). Any attempt to significantly curb immigration is likely to reduce the freedom of British citizens living in the EU, as well as those travelling abroad, for example.
The reality is that migration policy, while guided by evidence, must be founded on broad principle otherwise it will risk “unravelling on the weight of its own contradictions” as Sarah Mulley, one of the report’s authors, recently described the government’s current approach. From a liberal progressive perspective, today’s IPPR report provides a clear starting point for fleshing out these principles with its conclusion that: “An optimistic progressive vision for the UK can more easily accommodate migration than the pessimistic and regressive vision implicit in the account of many migration sceptics.”
* Alasdair Murray was the parliamentary candidate for Bournemouth West in 2010 and is a trustee of British Future