Free movement is gone – but business can still persuade the public of the benefits of migration

Sunder Katwala
A different conversation is needed – in which economic advocates accept that there are both pressures and gains from immigration (Source: Getty)

Britain may have a new home secretary and a new PM, but the quarterly immigration figures, out today, look set to tell the same old story. The government remains nowhere near meeting its “tens of thousands” net migration target and new polling shows the public doesn’t think it’s likely to.

But business voices hoping Amber Rudd will scrap the target and move on will need to think again. The recent Leave vote only increases political pressure for restrictive approaches to immigration. For many companies, reliant on migration to bring in skills and fill job vacancies, this poses a problem.

Business voices have struggled to make an effective case to policy-makers, or to the public, for the economic benefits of immigration. Their challenge now will be to protect those benefits more effectively. That means building political and public consent for migration that benefits Britain’s economy and society.

1. Learn the lessons from the referendum

The referendum demonstrated why economic advocates of migration often fail to connect with the public. The “trust the experts” approach rarely managed to engage those who were not already onside.

It is time to drop the idea that those who are anxious about immigration can be given a killer fact which proves they are wrong to worry. A different conversation is needed – in which economic advocates accept that there are both pressures and gains from immigration, and seek to find common ground on how we can manage the pressures better to secure those gains.

2. Accept that change is coming – and engage with it

Like it or not, the 52 per cent vote for Leave in the referendum is a mandate for change. While people will understand that businesses want to defend access to European markets, defending the status quo on free movement is unlikely to help rebuild public confidence in the benefits of managed migration. A more effective strategy would contribute to workable solutions that can change the system for the better.

3. Engage with the big picture, not just the micro detail

Companies have often been caught up in detailed consultations on the particulars of immigration policies – so much so that they have had little time to look up and engage in the broader debate. Brexit opens up immigration politics and policy. Economic advocates will need to raise their sights and engage with the macro picture as well as the micro. Advocacy for a Comprehensive Immigration Review could be an effective way to advance this.

4. Pick battles strategically

The post-Brexit immigration debate will have several phases. EU nationals currently living in the UK are anxious about their status now; there will be a significant period of negotiation before we know what Brexit looks like; and choices about the mix of EU and non-EU immigration may then come to the fore towards the end of the Parliament.

It will surprise some to hear that focusing their advocacy on the government’s net migration target therefore makes little sense. The debate about the future of the headline target will have little practical impact until the contours of Brexit, and its impact on future UK immigration policy, become clearer. By contrast, advocating clearly for the status of European nationals in the UK – an immediate, tangible issue for existing workers, with important business impacts – is a very good first priority for economic advocates.

5. Explore the potential for common ground

Economic advocates will remain marginalised in immigration debates if politicians and the public see them as mainly offering a voice of complaint and critique, rather than contributing practical solutions to manage migration effectively. What has been missing is a constructive, real world agenda that makes sense as economics and as politics too – an approach that addresses the challenges and pressures of immigration, as well as its benefits.

British Future's new report, What next after Brexit? Immigration and integration in post-referendum Britain, is published today.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles