What would a liberal, progressive migration policy for the UK look like?

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

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • Let’s just drop the idea that Britain needs controlled entry and exit like communist East Germany shall we?

  • Richard Dean 18th Jan '13 - 2:17pm

    The policy should recognize the RIGHT of the inhabitants of a place to determine who can live there. Civilization itself exists only because of this – you cannot farm if people are allowed to trample your crops, or eat them ad hoc, or indeed ruin your economy. Every social animal does the same, and every animal that cares for its young. Poke into a bee’s nest, or a tiger den, and see! There is no absolute right to freedom of geographic movement.

    If EQUALITY means anything, the policy should surely not allow entry on bases such as skills or wealth, particularly for people who come from poorer countries whose populations would consequently lose out. How about a requirement that an act of immigration must significantly benefit, not only the immigrant and the recipient country, but also the donor country? Difficult to define “benefit” I suppose, but could be worked at.

  • Richard Dean 18th Jan '13 - 3:04pm

    A third principle might be a DUTY – what a nice word! – of inhabitants to participate in national strategies from which they will derive benefits. So for example for immigration from the EU – our national strategy is to build and perform in EU markets, and we need free movement from and to any EU country to achieve this benefit.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Jan '13 - 6:07pm

    “The policy should recognize the RIGHT of the inhabitants of a place to determine who can live there.”

    Sadly, we know from “inhabitants” expressed views, that they are often not overly keen on allowing people who they deem as different to live in their area. One only has to think about the ridiculous uproar that we hear over the siting of Gypsy Roma, Traveller sites to realise this.

    Whilst some politicians, and the media continue to use immigration as cheap publicity, I fear that we cannot fully engage in a sensible discussion, but we desperately need this discussion to take place, if only to remove the myths, and unwarranted fears.

    We have always been, a ‘Mongrel Nation’, as Eddie Izzard would say, and long may this continue, for we have done pretty well out of attracting migrants to these shores since the beginning of time.

    Should there be border controls, well yes obviously, but lets not get all xenophobic about it, as Ukip, and other Far Right cranks do please.

  • Richard Dean 18th Jan '13 - 6:36pm

    Well, we surely don’t approve of taking rights away from people just because we don’t like their views? Instead, such a situation is surely a reason for putting more effort into more discussion and more myth-busting efforts?

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 18th Jan '13 - 8:05pm

    “Well, we surely don’t approve of taking rights away from people just because we don’t like their views? ”

    Freedom of speech also requires people to be responsible. If people choose to spread hatred then yes, I would deprive them of some rights until they demonstrate that they can behave in a responsible manner. I care not what people think, but I certainly care about what they say, and how this may influence others.

    There is currently a lot of misinformation being spread about by people and organisations that clearly have a less than cohesive and inclusive agenda, and it is the perceived and real migrant communities (which includes my kith and kin, so I admit a bias) who will, and do suffer from the backlash.

    I support discussion, but in an adult, and informed manner, and not the daily chat show, or ‘red top’ approach that are overtly inflammatory to feed upon the ‘blood lust’ of some.

    Perhaps our own Party could lead the way in a healthy approach to such a debate?

  • While I appreciate that you, like I suspect many here, want to see a progressive immigration policy finally implemented, there are many problems stopping this becoming a reality and they go far beyond a line which can construed in a way we would disagree with.
    First, Policy in this area is dictated by UKBA who, in both ideal and skill, are the worst people to do this. We have another article which has already outlined their incompetent nature, both purposeful and not..

    Next, this topic, like Europe and so many others, is completely dominated by the wrong side. This means that politicians are convinced that the public are completely anti-immigration. (I image more than a few are, but still.) I suspect we may even see our own parties immigration policy dragged to this cynical side in an a foolish attempt to cull non-existent votes.

    Moreover, this means that facts and myths of this topic are completely out of wack. (I think we all know this so I will say no more.)

    Finally, though affected by this are in one of our democratic blackholes. They are often the most exposed to our systems failings and have the least power to hold those failing them to account.

  • Richard Dean 18th Jan '13 - 9:12pm

    I certainly agree that the management of hate is a difficult issue. On one hand it’s desirable to ensure that it at least doesn’t grow in a population. On the other hand, preventing its expression can tend to make it grow more intense in individuals. Some kind of alternative way forward would be desirable – just look around and you see hate and its precursors near and far – it’s perhaps something that sociologists could do some research on.

  • I think Liberal Al’s comment explains partly the problem, no matter how bad things get and how many brits say they are worried by mass immigration (75% at the last count), people like Al will always shrug it off as a bigoted-few, get out into the real-world, we dont want this, we didnt ask for this, its done NOTHING for us except drive down our wages and quality of life, we have a housing crisis & councils that are giving away 50% of our housing stock to immigrants, why iare people who cant afford to rent a home here? Their lives here are being subsidised by us

  • I’m from Leicester and I’ve got a lot of Asian, Hindu, relatives, but I’ve got say migration is not all great. It displaces people and for the most part the different cultures gravitate to people from the same background. So here you’ve got distinct areas and not that much interaction. Black British kids seem to mix OK with white or British Muslim kids, but the latter groups are less likely to be seen together.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 20th Jan '13 - 7:39am

    ‘Innocent A’, thank you for introducing some of the ‘Red Top’ myths that surround the immigration agenda. Perhaps you could direct us all to the evidence that supports these assertions ? And I do mean evidence and not uncorroborated statements from Ukip, a Right Wing quasi Think Tank or similar.

    As for the “we don’t want this, we didn’t ask for this…”, pray tell who are the “we” that you are speaking up for?

  • I found the Report makes interesting reading and has done well to focus on “migration” policy rather than “immigration” policy. Given some of the content and the points being made, I’m a little surprised that the report doesn’t recommend linking migration policy to overseas development and aid policy.

    Putting this policy into the here and now context, the challenge currently is how to handle the fallout from New Labours daft and pointless experiment with removing effective immigration controls – the results of which were entirely predictable…

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