How to fight hard Brexit: Step 3 – Don’t do a Miliband on migration. Answer the numbers question

In a series of three pieces, Atul Hatwal sets out how hard Brexit can be fought in the coming years. Today he looks at what pro-Europeans need to do on immigration

The prologue is almost at an end. Theresa May’s Brexit speech last week marked the close of the preliminary skirmishes. Battle lines are being drawn on triggering Article 50; MPs are mobilising and a slew of cross-party amendments to the government’s A50 motion are expected on retaining significant single market participation.

Immigration will be at the heart of the debate with the balance of public opinion shaping what is and is not politically possible at Westminster.

Unfortunately, at this pivotal moment, on this central issue, pro-Europeans are in disarray. Too many seem to have taken a leaf out of the Labour playbook at the last election and are using Ed Miliband’s approach on immigration as their strategic template.

One of the great failings of the Labour party in the 2010 to 2015 parliament was magical thinking.

Labour policy on immigration exemplified the problem. Ed Miliband repeatedly sympathised with public worries that migration had been too high for many years. Yet rather than committing to policies to cut migration, he focused on tackling labour market exploitation. All very laudable, but not really answering public concerns on the level of migration to the UK.

The result was incontrovertible. At the 2015 general election, 15% of the public backed Labour on migration, 2% lower that at the 2010 election (YouGov issue tracker) despite net migration running at over three times the Tories’ target.

It was a hard lesson that remains widely unlearned.

Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds’ recent proposal for a two tier migration system with sectoral quotas is pure Milibandism. The Brexit Together campaign, fronted by Caroline Flint, which echoes this call, is more of the same.

Set aside for a moment the substance of the policy suggested. Plenty of practical criticisms could be made about the huge levels of state planning required to work out migrant quotas for jobs, by sector, seniority, substitutability and region.

This whole approach is built on an assumption that the British public is more concerned about the process of migration control rather than the resulting numbers arriving in the UK.

The logic is that if the public can be convinced that migration can be effectively managed then they will be more accepting of some groups of migrants such as skilled workers.

As a consequence, the focus is on control to address concerns on the management of the migration process.

This repeats Miliband’s magical thinking.

In 2013, before the maelstrom of the EU referendum campaign, 56% of respondents to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey said they wanted immigration reduced a lot. Add in those who wanted it reduced a little and 77% wanted cuts to migration.

Not much had changed by November 2016 when a smaller NatCen poll found that 70% wanted to cut migration.

The reason the public feel this way is that they think the result of immigration, people coming to the UK from abroad, is bad for Britain.

Unless this underlying premise is challenged, all the process controls in the world are pointless.

The 2013 BSA survey findings on the public’s views on different migrant groups are revealing.

The prioritisation of control might just about work in a debate about international students who are viewed more positively, but for every other group and so the overwhelming majority of migrants, it’s a very negative picture.

Even for students, these comparative levels of support would likely soon buckle in a public debate where the concentrated fire of the Brexit press and politicians branded the majority as bogus.

If immigration damages the country, the best course is to enact a major reduction which means tight numbers’ targets, quotas and goodbye to any hope of a soft Brexit deal with the EU.

It is the definition of political madness to think that voters will be persuaded to back something that harms them on the basis that the process of its implementation could be better managed.

Only if the principle of migration as beneficial to Britain is established can the debate then move onto the practice of management.

By arguing solely on the basis of migration control, the likes of Stephen Kinnock, Emma Reynolds and Caroline Flint, who ostensibly are pro-Europeans, are doing the hard Brexiteers work for them.

Mike Tyson memorably said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” When it comes to immigration, the numbers question is that punch.

The chart below illustrates what happens when arguments built on control make contact with the hard reality of numbers in the debate.

The structure of the argument, as it is currently conducted, is set-up to drive pro-Europeans to option 1 and agree that there will be a significant reduction in migration.

When Hard Brexiteers talk about control, they mean massive cuts.  Some of their rhetoric might talk about the “best and brightest” or “highly skilled workers”, but only a numerically small number of migrants would qualify under their definition. Too few to avert major damage to the economy or enable any ongoing relationship with the EU, outside of the basic WTO terms.

Option 2 is where most in the continuity Miliband camp would pitch their case if forced to give an answer. But the parameters of the debate are already set and if immigration is bad for Britain, why only a small reduction?

In terms of the discourse there is virtually no difference between calling for a small reduction in migration and leaving it unchanged with Option 3. The hard Brexiteer response is almost the same and if the central assertion that the current level of migration is unsustainable remains uncontested, then there really isn’t a logical basis for only backing a small reduction in numbers.

To any impartial observer making a judgement exclusively on the basis of the discussion that they see unfolding, choosing a small rather than a big reduction in migration is tantamount to self-harm if migration is such a big problem.

This is important because any potential soft Brexit deal with the EU might alter the terms of freedom of movement as part of a preferential trade agreement with Britain, but numbers wouldn’t be significantly impacted.

I was talking to a European Commission official before Christmas who speculated on the types of shift that could be possible.

Movement to the UK might be made conditional on the basis of a job offer. An emergency brake is conceivable. There could be scope for a minimum level of contribution and period of stay before eligibility for benefits. The policy name, freedom of movement, might even change

But any such deal will be rejected if the British public do not understand the benefit from migration continuing at a similar, albeit moderately lower level, than today.

Option 4 is always the starting point of those pro-Europeans who want to make control the centrepiece of their argument and is the worst possible response to the numbers question. If they stick to a line where they refuse to give any indication of the numbers of migrants who would come to the UK, not only are hard Brexiteer attacks on migration unrebutted but the added evasiveness of failing to answer a straight question undermines the broader pro-European case.

Broadcast appearances can spiral into a stuck record with the interviewer repeatedly pressing for an answer while the politician slips and slides, doing their very best impression of a shifty establishment shill.

It feeds conspiracy theories and enables wild claims such as Vote Leave’s scaremongering on Turkish migration to gain traction.

The reality is that the numbers question is impossible to dodge, and as such, needs to be embraced.

Politicians and campaigners who want to avoid hard Brexit will have to make the case for why migration is good for Britain and that the broad scale of numbers coming to the UK is not a problem.

The cause might seem daunting, but it’s a winnable argument.

The objective is not to persuade Britain to be positive about migration but that cutting it will damage the economy. That NatCen poll from November last year which had 70% wanting to cut migrant numbers also found that 49% backed free movement in return for free trade with the EU versus 51% who didn’t.

Graphic from NatCen report, “What do voters want from Brexit”, November 2016

Broken down by party affiliation, 65% of Labour supporters and even 40% of Conservative supporters were in favour.

Public opinion is very finely balanced. Much more so than is perceived in the Westminster village.

In those cloistered environs, most might think that migration trumps the economy, but as I outlined in the first of these three pieces on Brexit, the evidence from the EU referendum was very different. People didn’t believe the economic threat last June but did think migration could be cut. If the majority had thought the reduction in migration could only come at a cost to the economy, Britain would still be in the EU.

Pro-Europeans’ task on migration is to explain the counter-intuitive – why more people coming to Britain leads to more jobs and better funding for public services and the implications of a big cut for Britons’ wallets.

It means rebooting how migration is discussed, not as a cost to be borne in return for single market participation, but as something that is beneficial for Britain and indeed integral to the benefits of the single market.

Jobs and skills are probably the best starting point – they are more intuitively comprehensible than the abstract macro-economics of growth figures or public finance aggregates.

Immigration helps safeguard British jobs by ensuring firms have sufficient staff with the right skills to meet their orders. Currently there are over three-quarters of a million vacancies in the British economy – almost the highest on record. Unemployment is at an 11 year low at 4.8%. Employers are desperate for staff.

Even when the economy was faltering in the early 2010s, there were still almost half a million jobs unfilled. Britain’s economy relies on migrant skills. This might change over time with improved training, but improving Britons’ skills, particularly basic skills, is the work of decades and a challenge that has remained beyond governments over the past forty years.

In the here and now, where real people live, slashing immigration would rapidly cause staff shortages for firms, meaning orders would not be fulfilled, businesses would struggle and British jobs would be threatened.

Even in the 10 sectors with the highest proportion of migrant workers, typically 4 out of 5 workers are British.

There might be local concentrations of migrant employment such as in a factory but across the vast majority of firms in these sectors the bulk will be British workers – in IT, marketing, distribution, HR, project management, whatever – who are dependent on its success for their continued employment.

In the public sector, the need is even more stark. Almost 40% of doctors and nurses in the NHS are migrants.

Not everything is ideal about migration. There are social pressures in areas which undergo rapid change, there is some evidence of a small negative impact on wages (1-2p an hour) in certain low paid sectors and there is a psychological impact for workers in those sectors worried about the ease with which rapacious bosses could replace them.

These are valid concerns and need to be acknowledged. But little would improve with significant cuts to migration, largely because the root causes of these problems are domestic – for example, Britain’s hyper-flexible labour market and endemic under-funding of public services – and much would get worse.

To an extent it’s understandable for Ukip and right-wing Tories to pretend that migration is the root cause of all ills. Theirs is an ideology where exclusion of the other is a defining characteristic. But when Labour politicians and trade unionists follow them down the fake policy foxhole, they betray the founding basis of the Labour party.

Offering the false explanations to the public of why they are struggling not only promulgates lies but lifts the pressure to tackle the actual causes of the problem.

In the campaign to avoid a hard Brexit, the specifics of setting out a future immigration system need to wait. There’s no mileage in copying Ed Miliband and running from the question that the public is asking. A case built exclusively on control pre-determines failure as Labour found at the 2015 election.

The focus should be on establishing the principle that migration brings significant benefits to the economy.

Only then will those who want to avoid hard Brexit be able to win an argument dominated by the numbers’ question.  Pro-Europeans’ need to face it, answer it and make the case for migration.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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9 Responses to “How to fight hard Brexit: Step 3 – Don’t do a Miliband on migration. Answer the numbers question”

  1. Malc says:

    Labour’s Tory-lites and the proper Tories think that 4.8% unemployment is good.

  2. paul barker says:

    The Liberal Democrats will be arguing that Immigration has been largely positive. Most of the poorer Leave areas are actually suffering from Emigration.
    It would be great if Labour joined us in fighting The Tories/UKIP.

  3. Rob Parker says:

    You just don’t get it at all. The anti-immigration feeling in much of the country doesn’t come from anger at undercutting wages or inequality, or primarily economic concerns like “the burden on the health service, longer waiting times, fewer school places etc”. A Migrant Impact Fund would make no difference.

    The key point is that millions of people feel that their local areas have changed drastically, now having very high proportions of people living around them with whom they share no cultural, linguistic or ethnic ties. In places like Stoke (an area I know reasonably well), people feel their communities have been undermined. You can’t dismiss as xenophobia the feeling amongst so many people that their communities have been watered down and that in fact several communities living alongside each other, which has negatively impacted on their sense of ownership of “home”.

    If people see change like that and dislike it, no amount of moralising or pleas to remember the importance of migration to the wider economy/NHS etc from pro-migration enthusiasts will change minds. The only things that will change minds would be 1) a reduction in the rate of immigration and 2) increased integration of those migrants who are here now. This is primarily a cultural issue.

  4. john P Reid says:

    alternatively, accept that we need to control immigration, also don’t call controlling immigration hard brexit,or accept that once out the single market,we’ll have more Commonwealth immigration

    good For Flint and Kinnock junior if they backed Ed miliband on immigration ,but the reason there was a even larger full in support for labour over immigration in 2015, was because no one believed Ed miliband could do it, anymore than they believed Cameron, and maybe Gordon Browns silly inaccurate quote “british jobs for british workers, showed, at least Gordon took it serious

  5. Tafia says:

    Migration is only beneficial as long as it costs nothing – ie the migrant concerned doesn’t get tax credits, doesn’t get rent assistance, doesn’t qualify for unemployment benefit until they have worked full time for a minimum poeriod – say 2 years full time work.

    And it’s also only beneficial provided employers are not using it to keep wage costs down.

    Luckily, this next decade will see millions of middle class white collar jobs leave this country (it has laready started) in fields such as corporate law, HR back office, remote IT, archives, accounts etc etc. Initially these will go to Spain but that is onkly transitional – the final destination is China, Thailand and the Philipines – where you can get a corporate lawyer or highly qualified accountant for 5K US dollars a year.

    I can even tell you that companies are already – and have been for several years – importing highly skilled graduates from the Baltic sates in such fileds as IT, engineering etc etc. Brought in on 3 year contracts for less than 20K then binned and replaced after the three years.

    I can even tell you of a hospital that has been filing it’s recruitment shirtfall for several years with nurses from the Philipines – because nurses from EU countries have too high expectations whereas thre Philipine nurses – despite being highly qualified- are on the bottom grade pay.

    The next wave of mass job losses and replacements and wage depression will decimate the middle classes – and being as they thought it was acceptable when it was done to us rank and file workers then they won’t mind if we ignore their impending plight – but by God, they better accept it like we had to.

  6. TTP says:

    I’m afraid I have to agree with Rob Parker. There are many millions of people in this country who will quite happily trash the economy if it means that they don’t have to hear people speaking Polish in Aldi.

    Perhaps if they got to know the immigrants they’re so afraid of, they might find that we all want the same things…decent housing, schools for our kids and, yes, stable communities.

  7. John P Reid says:

    Paul barker the libdems fought the Tories?, you didn’t between 2010-2015

    Rob, yes areas have changed but it’s not to do with immigration, but class, people 25years ago,disliked a working class thing like a tattoo parkour moving in their areas, these days dislike a Betting shop,

    TTp if you were living in squalor on a council estate,and Brexit caused more poverty, but it didn’t mean, that controlling our borders,Lso controlled the religion and culture there, what have you got to lose

  8. Carol says:

    Thank you to Rob and Tafia. Yes there does seem to be widespread denial of the fact that middle class jobs are going too. For most of us there have been no important cultural benefits from mass immigration. Improvements in food would have happened anyway because of people holidaying outside the UK. Integration can only happen if people want it and if there is a shared language. Labour has destroyed itself on this issue.

  9. Good article Atul.

    I’d also add the following: we need to debunk the lie that that EU free movement is unconditional. It isn’t and it never has been, but successive UK governments have never bothered to use the conditionality that other EU countries use.

    Theresa May had 6 years in the home office to do this and she chose not to. Why? My view is that it enabled her to blame her failure to get net migration down to 100k per year on the EU, rather than the truth that the government didn’t really want to reduce migration so drastically as they recognised that it could damage the economy.

    See my blog piece here:

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