The current immigration system has meant less foreign workers filling up low paid roles, and no special treatment for people from the EU. But it hasn’t given us any sense of authority, writes Will Cooling
As we seemingly drift ever closer to today’s-tired Tories being swept aside by Sir Keir Starmer, it has become fashionable to marvel at how little they have achieved. But this confuses incoherence for inactivity as on issue after issue the people who replaced David Cameron and George Osborne have been raging against the legacy of the very men who brought the Tories back into office.
There is, however, one missed target, a throughline throughout these thirteen wasted years: to get net immigration back into the tens of thousands. It was a rare sop to cultural conservatives at the height of Cameron’s attempts to detoxify his party, one he tellingly justified by noting the party had achieved this goal during its last period in office. In doing so he ignored the fact that EU enlargement had made such a policy impossible to achieve given the hundreds of millions of people who had gained unfettered access to the British labour market. As displacement activity, he allowed the Home Office to treat people arriving from outside Europe in ever more punitive ways.
In theory such games should have ended when we voted for Brexit, and indeed the Tory party responded by electing the woman in Theresa May who, during her long stint as Home Secretary, had established herself as the party’s foremost immigration restrictionist. The Brexit psychodrama would not only engulf her premiership but would create the mistaken impression that people with far more liberal attitudes towards immigration such as Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings were to be trusted in finally fulfilling Cameron’s pledge.
One of their first actions upon taking office was to scrap May’s planned system of work permits and visas, for one where any skilled worker from overseas would have complete freedom to come work in the UK, provided they scored enough points against a transparent set of criteria. As May warned, and as Australia discovered when it implemented such a system, this led to a surge in people moving over to the UK.
It is important to remember that the current system has met two key promises made about immigration during the referendum campaign. Firstly, it has significantly reduced the ability of most employers to recruit overseas workers to fill low paid roles, thereby addressing concerns that immigration was increasingly being used to undercut working class wages. Secondly, it has ended the practice of treating the overwhelmingly white population of the European Union differently to the rest of the world, something that particularly attracted criticism from Black and Asian Britons.
But the new system has not given Britain a sense of control over immigration. Indeed, in many ways we are back to square one, when we were still members of the European Union, with the government desperately hoping that headline grabbing moves on illegal immigrants or international students will distract from the broader picture.
But such gimmicks are unnecessary. We are no longer bound by international treaty to maintain a system that our own government thinks is overly liberal. If Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman really want to reduce immigration, they have the power to tighten the criteria for entry under the current points-based system. Better yet, they could go back to the system that Theresa May suggested, where skilled workers from overseas apply for work visas in the same way unskilled ones do, with the number of visas available based on an assessment of Britain’s need.
Of course, the problem is that such an assessment would almost certainly show that Britain needs to maintain high levels of immigration if it isn’t to suffer key worker shortages, even higher inflation and ultimately a painful recession. Which takes us back to David Cameron’s justifying his target by highlighting the achievements of Margaret Thatcher. Because one of the many reasons why immigration was unusually low throughout the 1980s was that her governments managed to significantly increase the productivity of the people already working in Britain, thereby freeing up people to do jobs that would otherwise have been done by immigrants.
Just as today’s Tories have failed to reduce immigration, they have also failed to increase productivity. Indeed, there has been barely any increase in British productivity over the past thirteen years despite unemployment staying low. Only when that low productivity changes can the government get serious about reducing immigration without harming living standards for everyone who lives here.