A changed landscape on migration in the UK

A changed landscape on migration in the UK

June 1, 2015

By Tim Finch

Nearly a month on and friends of all political sympathies still say they wake up and can’t quite believe it. In a result almost no one predicted, the Conservatives won the British General Election with a clear, if small, majority. Across a range of policy areas, not least migration, the party has the chance to prosecute its own agenda much more decisively than it expected. Yet the UK is changing in many ways, and is facing some seismic events, which may mean that migration policy takes rather different directions.  

Having spectacularly failed to deliver on their 2010 “no ifs, no buts” pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands from the hundreds of thousands; having reframed the pledge as a longer term “ambition” in their 2015 manifesto; and having successfully played down immigration as a major theme during the campaign, it was plausible that the Conservatives might display a more relaxed attitude to immigration following their victory on 7th May. But two weeks later, new migration statistics came out, showing net migration at near record levels (well above 300,000), and the Prime Minister immediately responded with more restrictive measures.

The most striking of these were pledges to curb skilled migration from outside the EU, one of the migration routes which most clearly benefits the British economy and about which the public worries least. Another area where the government has signalled a clamp down is on labour market rules. And while, in a surprise move, the plans to scrap the Human Rights Acts and replace it with a British Bill of Rights have been delayed, it is likely that a further erosion of migrant rights is on the cards.

All of this comes ahead of the flagship policy of holding an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Of course, if the UK were to leave the EU, free movement to and from the country would end. But even the Prime Minister’s preferred outcome – a renegotiation of the UK terms of membership and a vote to stay in – is likely to result in significant changes to EU migration. As David Cameron has said, changes to benefit access and other reforms are “an absolute requirement in the renegotiation.”

This prospectus would appear to offer little ground for optimism among those who would like to see the advance of more open and progressive attitudes towards migration. However, in the longer term, the outlook may turn out to be more benign. A recent paper by the UK think tank, Policy Exchange, argued that various “megatrends” – the growth of ethnic minority populations, the rise of cities and increasing levels of education, etc. – point to a more “cosmopolitan future” for Britain. Some of the societal trends highlighted by another think tank, British Future, [an Unbound grant-holder] also suggest a more conducive environment will develop—with Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) voters being a significant force; many more communities characterised by diversity; and socially liberal attitudes becoming more prevalent.

And the make up of the new parliament; early evidence of voting patterns, including BME voters; and polling done by a centre right body, Bright Blue, suggest that even the Conservative party is changing fast in this direction.

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Tim Finch is the former Director of Communications at the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Refugee Council.

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