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Who’s saying what about immigration in the General Election?

By Robert Wright - Posted on 5 May 2015

Robert E. Wright, Professor of Economics at Strathclyde Business School, discusses the major political parties’ plans for immigration in light of the General Election.

British people have much in common with their counterparts in other European countries when it comes to stating what matters most to them. When asked in surveys to indicate what concerns people most about the countries they live in, their responses are surprisingly similar. The number one concern is the economy, with unemployment and recession a serious worry. Number two is immigration, with levels needing to be drastically reduced.  Number three is crime and security, with more policing and stiffer sentencing required. Promises from parties that address these concerns are clear vote winners.

It isn’t surprising that in the run-up to the general election the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have aligned their manifestos, promises and campaign rhetoric with these concerns. All are in agreement that immigration is too high and must be reduced. However, the way in which they deliver this message is at times comical. Labour have produced mugs with their “Pledge 4” printed on them: “Controls on immigration”. The Conservatives have softened their tone from “reducing net-migration from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands”, mainly because since announcing this target, they have failed miserably to achieve it. Maybe, as George Osborne recently remarked, this target is more aspirational than achievable.  Not surprisingly, the Liberals Democrats have no clear policy on immigration. However, they boast that they have “…helped cut immigration by a third”, which they no doubt believe is a job well done, with similar good work led by them needed in the future.

When it comes to immigration, the leaders of the main parties are simply making promises they will not be able to keep. Why is it so difficult to reduce immigration? The answer is simple. Immigrants to the UK come from two groups of countries. The first is the rest of the EU. The second is from all other countries in the world. People immigrating from outside the EU must apply to immigrate and meet a specific set of criteria. If you want to reduce immigration from these countries, you simply make the criteria tougher. However, people immigrating from the EU are not subject to the same criteria. In fact, the opposite is the case, where the free movement of people is a fundamental right guaranteed under EU law.

What is not realised (or at least admitted) by the anti-immigration politicians is if you decrease immigration from outside the EU by tightening up the system, you unwittingly increase immigration from countries within the EU. People are coming to the UK for a reason – mainly employment. Stopping non-EU migrants filling vacant jobs doesn’t stop people from within the EU filling them instead, nor is it a guarantee that native-born citizens will take these opportunities. UK immigration is like a teeter-totter—one side goes down and the other goes up

It’s of minor interest to note that UKIP’s position is to reduce net-migration to 30,000 people per year, approximately ten per cent of the current level.  Unlike leaders of the other parties, Mr. Farage is the only one to publicly state that it’s impossible to reduce net-migration without lowering immigration from the other EU member states. And the only way to do this “for sure” is to leave the EU. I am afraid that he is also correct in this respect as this is the only practical way in which the UK “can take control of its borders”.

So what does this mean for Scotland? The SNP seems to recognise the positive economic contribution that “managed immigration” can make in a country experiencing rapid population ageing and potential labour force decline. However, immigration is a “reserved power” and will remain so in the immediate future.  Their position is pragmatic, based mainly on the view that: “you should embrace what you can’t control”. While they shout that Scotland should have its own system, which will allow them to pursue its own immigration policy, they didn’t push “too hard” for this to be negotiated in the Smith Commission. This is understandable given that Scots aren’t much different in their attitudes, with survey after survey indicating that Scots are only slightly less negative about immigration than England.  To say that Scotland is pro-immigration is simply wrong. The SNP recognise this and don’t talk with much conviction about the benefits of immigration. Talking these up is just as much a vote-loser in Scotland as it is in the rest of the country.

Little will change with respect to immigration levels if Labour or the Liberal Democrats form the government either as a majority or in some form of coalition. The parties will continue promising to reduce immigration half-heartedly with negligible effect. The real worry is if the Conservatives form the next government and follow through with their promise of an “EU-exit” referendum. UKIP will no doubt argue that if you really want less immigration, you must vote “yes” — a view that fits the facts better than what the other parties have to offer. However, the economic meltdown caused by leaving the EU will trivialise issues such immigration. A “no” vote will result in the Conservatives promising lower immigration, yet knowing from experience it is a promise they can’t deliver.  For Scotland it will be business as usual, with the SNP arguing (but not too hard) for something they can’t have.

Do you believe immigration produces more benefits or problems for the UK?

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