Immigration must work for people on low and middle incomes

Simply telling people that high migration is inevitable and that they shouldn’t worry is not the way to gain public trust.

When we get to see the now famous withheld report on the labour market impacts of immigration we can be fairly sure that it will only tells us what we already know.

The extent to which migrants take jobs and suppress wages has been extensively researched and there’s been an established consensus among respected economists for some time that, on average, they don’t.

So when Theresa May seized on one aspect of what now looks like an outlier report to claim that migrants were displacing British people from jobs, she was, as she must have known, playing fast and loose with the evidence base. 

However, if those who support more progressive migration policies think that the correction of a false perception will win over a sceptical public they’re likely to be disappointed.

As last week’s migration figures showed, we do need to update our approach to migration.

What might be called ‘crude restrictionism’ – i.e focussing all effort on reducing overall migration whatever the cost – is now clearly, as many predicted, a failed and damaging strategy. After studying migration trends for years, IPPR is more convinced than ever that we have moved into a new era of international mobility and inter-connectedness.

And while we should of course manage migration efficiently, there is no way, short of disastrous UKIP style policies, to get back to the migration levels of two decades ago.

However simply telling people that high migration is inevitable and that they shouldn’t worry anyway because it is good for the economy is not the way to gain public consent for a sustainable, forward looking approach to migration, as research for a new IPPR report shows.

Rather the focus should be constructing a set of policies that are demonstrably fair – to migrants yes, but more importantly to UK citizens. That means ensuring that migrants are coming to invest, create jobs or work, that they are clearly paying into the system rather than to taking out, and that they don’t get unfair access to welfare, social housing or public services.

It also means placing expectations on migrants to play by our rules and to fit into our society.

But perhaps above all it means that migration policy must fit into a wider agenda of reform – particularly of the economy – to ensure that it delivers better than in recent years for people on low and middle incomes.

The absence of this focus was one of the reasons why the public backlash against migration began under the last Labour government. Yes, high numbers of migrants were being successfully absorbed into our (then) booming economy, and yes, wider economic and fiscal benefits were accruing, but too many people felt  that they were not sharing in those benefits.

If, as the economy recovers, migration is seen to be helping to drive growth and business profits, but the prospects, pay and conditions of ordinary workers are stagnating or declining, there will be no softening of public hostility to migration.

If, on the other hand, the Fair Deal IPPR is proposing is adopted, then there is a real prospect of reversing out of the current dead end in which politicians feel forced to make promises on migration that are damaging to the UK and aren’t ultimately deliverable.

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