8 July 2019

Business must do more to shape the politics of immigration after May


Whichever candidate takes the keys to Number 10 later this month, the change of Conservative leader and Prime Minister looks set to mark the end of the net migration target.

As politics move on, those looking to advocate for a fresh approach to immigration must do so too – and that includes business voices seeking access to the skills and labour that they need.

The net migration target embodied the failures of migration policy under Theresa May. It was all about the numbers – and the numbers refused to budge. Net migration was 256,000 when May entered the Home Office in 2010. As she announced her departure from Downing Street, it was 255,000. By the end, as cabinet colleagues refused to commit to keeping the target, May was almost alone in reiterating this much-broken promise, one that could never really be kept.

With May gone it seems inevitable that her successor, not wishing to own a failure, will let the target go with her. Frontrunner Boris Johnson has proposed an ‘Australian-style’ points-based system that distinguishes between different flows of migration, combining control with openness to skills – an approach that would be incompatible with the ‘one-size-fits-all’ target. Jeremy Hunt has been clearer still, stating that he does not support the ‘tens of thousands’ target and would also review the proposed £30,000 salary threshold for skilled migrants.

The current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has been yet more emphatic, telling a British Future event that “I think it’s nonsense to set a target that you know you can never meet, the tens of thousands…it should be led by what you think the country needs.” New ICM research for British Future, published in a new report today, Immigration after May: What should the new Prime Minister change? finds 72% of Conservative voters in favour of replacing the net migration target with separate targets for different types of immigration.

Getting rid of the target may prove to be the easier bit. It was never difficult for critics of the Government to make the case against a target that was always missed. Workable alternatives have been more seldom seen.

One reason for this is that migration advocates, in business and elsewhere, have more in common with Mrs May than they think. While she looked at the headlines and polls and concluded that reducing numbers at all costs was the route to electoral popularity, so her critics looked at those same figures and drew a similar conclusion – that the public was outright hostile on immigration and deaf to other arguments.

The result was that advocates ducked the public debate altogether – or told people that they were wrong to disagree. Voters were bombarded with facts and figures about immigration’s positive impact on GDP in the hope that they would change their minds. Their arguments rang hollow with voters, who could see little reason why percentage rises or falls in GDP would impact on their own lives. They struggled to overcome the perception that this was a self-interested argument: ‘immigration may be good for you but why does that make it good for me?’.

Both May and her opponents were mistaken. Public attitudes are more nuanced than the black-and-white picture that politicians took from the tabloids. Most people think that immigration brings pressures to Britain, particularly in places that have experienced rapid change, but that it brings benefits too. They welcome the contribution that migrants make to our economy, our culture and to public services like the NHS. When British Future and HOPE not hate went around the country talking to members of the public about immigration, we heard stories of people thanking migrant nurses and doctors for treating them and their families – often in the same breath as worrying about whether queues at the doctor’s surgery were due to rising population.

If pro-migration business voices want government to take a fresh approach to immigration after May, they must also take one themselves. Business voices advocating for the benefits of immigration need to make the case for migration that benefits the economy and society in ways that can secure political and public consent.  There is a consensus on highly-skilled and student migration, but a greater challenge to unlock contingent public support for migration into low and semi-skilled roles.

So by all means make the case for the benefits of migration to the economy – with attitudes getting warmer, it will get more of a hearing – but engage too with the pressures and recognise the role that business can play in addressing them. If the migrant workforce that an employer needs is placing pressures on local housing and services, play an active role in addressing them. If language barriers are hampering integration of new arrivals, make space available for English language classes. And while it does take time to train UK workers to do the jobs that skilled migrants are doing, make the long-term case with better training programmes, alongside migration to plug short-term skills gaps.

After May we could start to see a new Government approach to immigration policy, one that is more open to balancing the pressures and the gains from migration. If they wish to influence it, business advocates for migration will need to move from critiques to solutions – and recognise that they must engage the public too if they wish to influence the politicians.

Steve Ballinger is Director of Communications for British Future, an independent thinktank