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Three Things To Remember About May's Plan To Cut Migration

09/05/2017 16:28

Theresa May wants you to remember her by her pledge to get net migration down to the "tens of thousands".

A fairly large number of people want this to happen, it looks hard-headed and pragmatic, and an obsession with immigrants is part of May's personal political brand.

And she's right; it does sum up her political approach, but just not for the reasons she thinks.

It is not going to happen

As Home Secretary, May sent a fleet of vans to tour minority communities with "Go Home" blazoned on the sides (a stunt that even Nigel Farage thought was a bit out-there.) It was fundamentally ineffective. Just 11 people left the country as a result. Her "right-to-rent" scheme, which demands landlords carry out immigration checks on tenants, has delivered a grand total of 31 deportations. The sound and fury of these operations was striking - they've caused misery for legitimate tenants, heightened mistrust between migrant communities and authorities, and caused working people to be dragged off their shop floors and humiliated by border officers in random checks - but crucially, they have been utterly operationally ineffective.

Daily Mail rhetoric doesn't make policy. Donald Trump learned a few months ago that reducing migration is not as simple as building a wall. He was mired in legal challenges and forced into embarrassing retreats over his refugee ban. His Mexico border wall might never see the light of the Nevada sun. And the British net migration rate is not going to hit the tens of thousands, even if free movement within Europe ends after Brexit (because European migration does not count for the majority of the total.)

Britain wouldn't like it if it did happen

It is theoretically possible that May could partially deliver. With the end of free movement, an even more hostile asylum policy than the present one (we already lock people in cells or squalid accommodation and wash our hands of refugee children), restrictions on foreign students and new measures to prevent even skilled professionals coming in, and if she could win the inevitable legal challenges, she might be able to sharply cut numbers.

There would be far less popular support for this than she thinks. When the Home Office deported a Durham grandmother with a British husband and children for the crime of caring for her ill family in Singapore, two thirds of Brits were opposed including half of Ukip voters. These kind of cases would soar.

But it's not just bleeding hearts that would tank her approval ratings. The loss of revenue from international student fees would damage a higher education sector already stripped down by cuts - a sector that entire towns depend on, that contributes around 2.6% of GDP. Even if we were to invest in training British citizens to do every skilled job currently done by a migrant worker (and under May's government skills and training investment has dropped) there would be a long gap with, for example, too few NHS doctors to meet basic need. Unskilled migrants would still find a way in - all the evidence suggests this - and vanish into an illegal black market that would increase exploitation, harm, and pressure on wages.

In short, she could come close to her target if she was willing to sacrifice billions from our economy and risk both British and migrant lives.

May knows it is not going to happen

May had control of the Home Office for all six of the years where it failed to meet her government's migration pledges. She was skilled at making herself scarce when it hit the fan - insiders nicknamed her "Submarine May" for her ability to submerge during controversial moments - but she was still there. She knows that she cannot, and will not, hit her target.

So she is lying through her teeth to get elected.

Strong and stable leadership would demand something quite different. She could address concerns about the pace of change by restoring the migration impact fund her government scrapped, and using it to ease pressure on any area affected by rapid demographic change (births and deaths as well as immigration or emigration.) She could respond to MPs' recommendations for a national integration strategy to support community cohesion, (rather than presiding over scrapping English classes.)

She could tackle low pay and workplace exploitation in order to deal with worries about migrant labour undercutting domestic labour - rather than smashing trade unions and presiding over a record drop in wages. She could accept that there will always be people overseas whose help our economy needs, as well as those in desperate need of our help - and set targets based on national interest, not more made-up numbers.

But instead, she prefers to make promises she knows she cannot keep, and sweep up votes on the basis of cheap, divisive rhetoric. Because she cannot be bothered to come up with real solutions to an immigration system she spent six years failing to mend. And most of all, because if she can't blame immigration for everything her cuts have caused, people might spend more time looking at what has actually led to school places, hospital beds, and decent jobs dying out.

This toxic combination of bluster, basic mismanagement and downright dishonesty has come to characterise her political project. Such a project cannot be allowed back into Downing Street.

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