Managing migration’s political fault-lines

Eight months ahead of the next general election, migration politics remain unnerving – perhaps toxic – for all major political parties, argues Professor Shamit Saggar.

Mass for migrant workers in London. Picture credit: Mazur/

The Coalition parliament has been dominated by an explicit commitment to bring down annual net migration substantially. This will be missed and in doing so will hurt David Cameron’s credibility.

The Opposition remains cautious, recognising that its own proposals elicit a sense of betrayal on the issue among its core supporters. And meanwhile, aspects of migration and diversity directly and indirectly shape political concerns ahead of the election.

Beneath this lie a number of key fault lines that current immigration exposes and feeds. Each of these are not new and can be traced from the mid twentieth century wave of New Commonwealth immigration and then from the EU wave in the past decade or so.

The first fault line is about scale or quantum. Put bluntly, this refers to the heat generated from complaints that there are too many immigrants at any one time.

Such complaints have come from those most squeezed by migration in employment and housing markets. In public services, it arises where there is a feeling of apparent unfairness – traditional leftist ideas of entitlement clashing with the objectives needs of newcomers. In its purest terms, it refers to the absolute numbers and is cast in intangible, nationwide terms. But in practice, it is about the rate of flow of newcomers. The pressure is given a local twist by the differential rates of settlement in particular places.

Some of the evidence points to an interplay between high migration, unstable communities and economic disadvantage. New immigrants tend towards less well off areas, partly for reasons of housing costs; these places experience higher population churn but are already seeing large numbers coming in and leaving. There is a strong sense of economic insecurity in these places which is further exacerbated by immigrants.

The second crack is related to composition. Immigration is unavoidably about the selection characteristics of those arriving and how these compare with those of natives and settled communities. In the past selectivity may have meant colour or ethnic identity as a key marker – for example, Australia’s overt immigration policies until the early 1970s. The 1949 Royal Commission on Population (facing a basic question of where new migrants come from) stipulated that they must be “…of good human stock and not prevented by their religion or race from intermarrying with the host population and becoming merged in it.”

That criterion seems outdated now, but selectivity matters more than ever. A more legitimate selection frame is human capital – the core characteristics of migrants complementing the skills and capabilities of the existing population. London, for example, as a generally prosperous city, has significant demand for relatively low skilled migrants to take up jobs that its natives are unwilling to perform. The last Labour government’s introduction of an Aussie-style points-based system was an effort to put the choice in the hands of technocrats who would dispassionately weigh up the quarterly case for beekeepers versus bartenders.

Thirdly, migration creates congestion, at least in the short-run, and this is a fault line that ripples across most areas of public policy. Congestion of course stems from the concerns about scale and rate, as noted above. In particular, this enables a focus on isolating important bottlenecks in public services (compulsory education places, access to primary health care appointments, etc.), as well as in areas such as infrastructure (overloaded local transportation and inadequate housing supply.)The South East is currently facing a major headache over airport expansion. High net migration merely hastens and doubles that ache.

Each of these fault lines resonates with the way in which migration politics works and is described. This is very different from a fourth fault line, namely the managerial capacity of governments.

The origins of this constraint are important to understand, namely a public that has been weaned for several decades on a less brutally ideological political environment. This places weight on which party team can deliver results quickly and enduringly.

The relationship between voters and leaders is not that different from that between shareholders and executive management. In this sense, voters punish failure harshly, discount for false promises and are canny about preferring outcomes that they know are almost unobtainable.

Immigration also sits alongside other issues and concerns, many of which suggest growing public doubts about governments’ overall ability to deliver on pre-stated goals. Public attitudes are aggregated together to form an overall judgment about competence. Political choice is increasingly presented as a managerial set of tasks that place emphasis on performance alone.

In this respect, immigration is one of a set of issues found in the performance basket on which voters pass judgment. The others are commonly management of the NHS, the macro economy and decent public service delivery. Last summer’s growing unrest in Calais is worrying since it reminds the public that, even across the Channel, hardly anyone is in charge of national borders. The competence of governments on this and unrelated matters is then doubted.

The implications of migration for social identity and cohesion creates a fifth fault line: Immigration as a political issue goes to the heart of concerns about cultural difference and how these sit alongside sameness.

As ethnic and cultural diversity has grown apace, it has become harder to articulate a defined narrative around homogeneity and solidarity. In some sceptical quarters there is an inference drawn about gradual Balkanisation – a fracturing of UK national identity that can barely be contained. Others have pointed to using state authority and influence to underpin tiny, though vital, aspects of social cohesion such as national pride, the importance of a common language and eliminating unjustified discrimination.

Tensions arise. All walks of life carry a crude disproportionality test, for example, whereby Pakistani men are said to be disproportionately involved in sexual abuse of some form. Muslim men are said to be over-represented in both soft support for radical Islamist ideology and hardened plots of violence. Black men are disproportionately the subjects of overt policing. And so forth.

The fault line, in other words, addresses some of the bad things that flow from earlier migration. We are uncomfortable with these whilst being attracted to the good things. The latter includes the disproportionately high attainment of Indian and Chinese groups in education and in employment.

And, worryingly, we can expect governments to develop smarter mechanisms to ease the flow and settlement of newcomers. This will normalise immigration as just another performance-type issue. It not so clear that the dynamics of social cohesion can or should be easily or directly affected by Whitehall.

The actual job of taking responsibility for immigrant integration perhaps should not directly fall on government – the US has had no equivalent of our integration policies and instead prefers to let the job market act as a ready reckoner of ‘making it in America.’ And tackling a core appeal in some sub-groups for abuse or violence will require government to probe into very murky corners.

The long campaign ahead of the general election will involve all the major parties seeking to unseat one another on any one of the first four fault lines. But it is the uncertainty about identity and cohesion that risks upturning the seriousness with which parties are seen by voters on migration as a whole.

Shamit Saggar was speaking today at a Labour Party conference fringe event: The Guardian and British Academy Roundtable Debate, Immigration: what are the social impacts?

Leave a Reply