Will the cap stem UK immigration concerns?
The actual number of immigrants in a country appears to be unrelated to public hostility to immigration
As the current British government begins to impose quotas on skilled immigration, presumably as a response to high levels of public concern about immigration, it is important to consider what real impact this policy will have on these concerns.
Most of the ordinary people I encounter seem perfectly aware that the proposed cap on immigration by skilled workers from outside the European Union is a bit of a ruse. What impact does this really have on the number of people being admitted, they ask, when workers from other EU countries like Poland cannot be restricted? The impact on numbers will be small and people generally seem to be aware of this fact. The proposed quotas are therefore seen as an attempt to trick the public, which could potentially contribute to growing cynicism about government and politicians.
People are also unclear as to why limitations are being put on the numbers of skilled migrants coming to the UK. There appears to be an awareness of the need to recruit the best and brightest from across the globe in order to increase British competitiveness. This is true for industry and services such as healthcare and medicine, but also for education. Many people seem to understand that caps on skilled workers may be extremely harmful to the British economy, and the health and education systems, with very little apparent gain and certainly relatively little impact on the total number of newcomers entering the country.
Perhaps most importantly, though, evidence is increasingly accumulating to indicate that numbers don’t matter much. That is, the actual number of immigrants in a country appears to be unrelated to public hostility to immigration. Moreover, evidence shows that people generally misperceive the numbers, overestimating the actual number of newcomers. This would suggest that some minor tweaking of numbers is unlikely to make much difference to perceptions of immigration.
So, what can governments do about the high levels of concern about immigration? One option is to attempt to return to the days when immigration was discussed much less by dropping all mention of it and hoping that the issue drops off the public’s radar. This is unlikely to work as concern about immigration appears to exist regardless of elite discussion or mobilisation. Close to one third of British survey respondents have fairly consistently identified immigration as one of the two most important issues facing the country since the middle of 2002 despite the fact that immigration has not consistently been a top issue of discussion in the media or amongst politicians throughout that time. Moreover, failing to address the issue could well reduce levels of trust in the political system, which would be seen as not dealing with one of the key concerns of its citizens.
An alternative option is for parties to simply be more open regarding their true views on immigration and to explain these in clear, consistent terms to the public. All mainstream parties are likely to want to preserve the ability of industry, education and services to recruit the most qualified workforce from any part of the world to ensure the resulting benefits for competitiveness and innovation. Introducing rigid caps on skilled migration is out of line with the interests of many of these parties’ own constituents and is potentially detrimental to Britain’s interests as a whole. An alternative to arbitrary caps is to engage with the public on this issue, for instance on immigration’s benefits and on the immigrants who have made significant contributions to British industry, medicine and society. This would be a welcome recognition that the majority of the British public is sophisticated enough to recognise that immigration has benefits.
Part of this approach would be to engage in a meaningful way with the group that seems to be most easily mobilised by far-right appeals, those living in the most deprived areas of the country. The issue of immigration seems to have become entwined with a more general sense of dissatisfaction, particularly in areas where there are large numbers of long-term unemployed people, where industries such as mining helped in previous eras give people more than just jobs but also a raison d’etre. It seems that, while social benefits might have kept people housed and fed, there has been a real failure by the state to help replace this sense of identity and there has been too little innovation in the past decades regarding how to provide these groups with employment prospects in an economy that is rapidly being re-structured. More needs to be done, for example through joint government-industry projects to re-train affected individuals.
This approach represents a potentially positive way forward for addressing public concern about immigration. Better positive engagement with the majority of the public could be combined with a more concerted effort in the areas hardest hit by economic restructuring since the 1970s to reengage individuals with promising career prospects that help them feel less marginalised and part of society.
Lauren McLaren is associate professor of politics and director of the Centre for the Study of European Governance at the University of Nottingham School of Politics and International Relations
This article is a contribution to Policy Network's seminar on "Performance politics: Building public confidence in immigration policy"