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A brief history of managed migration (and why it isn’t an easy alternative to free movement)

immigration people

Managed migration’ has been the official goal of government policy since the late 1990s.  It has gone down a confused, stumbling road, requiring constant revision and return to legislation in order to resolve its innumerable internal tensions and conflicts.

The central idea is that migration is linked to strategies for economic growth, with the numbers of people being admitted linked to perceptions about what the jobs market needs at any point in time.  It is possible to see ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ versions coming into play over the years. The period 2001-05 – associated with David Blunkett’s time at the Home Office – provides the example of soft managed migration, led by the assumption that the strong economic growth of the period would absorb all newcomers into the labour market in a virtuous cycle promoting higher levels of prosperity for all.

But whilst Blunkett believed that numbers didn’t matter, as long migration was contributing to economic growth, he was pessimistic that working class voters would accept this relative openness.  Alongside a reformed work permit scheme (later to be refined and marketed as the Points-Based Scheme), he also worked to increase the capacity of the immigration control authorities to impose their own order on the rising number of arriving migrants.  He laid out plans for biometric identity cards, ramped up fines on employers not properly checking the paperwork of their workers, and increased the size of the immigration detention estate – all measures intended to show that he would be ‘as tough as old boots’ with regard to any migrant who failed to pass muster.

Out of control

The soft approach, such as it was, became the object of a virulent campaign in the tabloid media which alleged massive abuse of the immigration system combined with a large negative impact on the living standards of native workers.  Blunkett failed to demonstrate that his department had the level of oversight and control that he claimed his policies had achieved.  His prime minister, Tony Blair, came down on the side of the negative media coverage of the issue and pivoted to the harder approach, firstly during the brief period of Charles Clarke in the Home Office, and then John Reid.  Reid famously declared the Home Office as being ‘not fit for purpose’ when it came to managing immigration, and set course for policies that more strictly tied non-EU migration to the conditions imposed by the Points-Based Scheme and a range of actions with challenged elements of free movement rights for EU nationals.

The hard approach ultimately provided no more assurances to voters that migration was ‘under control’ than had been provided by the softer scheme.  Arguably, simply by investing even more strongly in the narrative that ‘something had to be done’ about immigration simply reaffirmed the widely-held view that Labour had screwed up from day one and now couldn’t be trusted to get anything right.  As the government stumbled headlong into the crises and recessions of the period 2007-10 the spike in unemployment levels and arrest in wage growth, properly attributed to the credit and sovereign debt shocks, came to be blamed even more strongly on immigration.

Even harder

Labour’s eviction from office in 2010 was not the end of managed migration.  The scheme was taken over wholesale by the Cons-Lib Dem coalition with two significant tweaks.  The first, and best known, was the pledge to reduce net migration’ to the ‘tens of thousands’ over the lifetime of Parliament.  The second was to reinforce the state’s capacity to police migration through the adoption of the ‘hostile environment’ strategy.  Both of these innovations were fully consistent with the claim that migration was being sensibly managed in ways that supported economic growth and prosperity.

In truth, managed migration, in terms of its stated aims, has failed just as badly under the coalition and subsequent Tory government as ever it did under Labour. Net migration increased to levels around two and a half times higher under these governments from that inherited from Labour.  The hostile environment has been shown to be a catastrophic error, both in terms of the harm it has done to long-settled migrants and also the to reputation of the Home Office for basic competence. As things stand, the record of managed migration in all its forms across the past 20-plus years is abysmal.  Even more depressing is the fact that there is so little evidence of essential lessons being learnt by senior politicians of either of the two large Parliamentary parties.

Amber Rudd’s MAC inquiry:  What for and why so late?

Amber Rudd’s MAC inquiry: What for and why so late?

There is much bewilderment at Amber Rudd’s announcement yesterday that she has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to come up with evidence on the needs of the UK for migrants, reporting back at what seems to be the late date of September 2018.  Why so late?  Article 50 negotiations have us on schedule for being out the EU by the end of March 2019.  Is it really the case that the UK will only have six months to scramble for its replacement for the current system of freedom of movement?

One of the complaints, made most loudly by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, is that if the Conservatives were so keen to see immigration policy established on a firm evidence-base they would have gone to the MAC at a much early date to ensure that every minute of the processes of leaving the EU was put to good use in drafting a spanking new, entirely British immigration policy.  But the deeper truth concerns the claims governments make for ‘evidence-based’ policy and why this itself is subject to political contingencies which allows it to be turned on and off as the circumstances require.

Think back to September 2000 when the then immigration minister, Barbara Roche, made a famous speech announcing she was ditching prejudice to ensure that the management of the movement of people would henceforth be based on objective facts.Roche’s speech did not bring to an end the deeply entrenched view that foreign immigrants have a tendency to being trouble for British society, but it did mean that for a while at least this was checked by considerations of their value to economy that was finding labour power an ever-scarcer commodity.  The Treasury had more than one eye on the ‘bottlenecks’ caused by the shortage of workers that it saw building up across crucial sectors and it accordingly played an important role in opening up the jobs market to nationals of the eight accession countries that joined the EU in 2004.

Accession country immigration

Objective appraisal of the economic consequences strongly supports the view that this was not the foolish move that many have subsequently claimed.  Yes, large numbers came to the country after that date, but the vast majority were rapidly absorbed into a flexible labour market which was driving GDP growth rates along at the cracking rate of around 2.7% per annum.  Claims that they were responsible for creating a low wage economy were belied by the evidence which showed that the slump in the wages structure had its roots back in the 1980s, arising from the decimation of employment in manufacturing and the subsequent expansion of the service sector.  In case anyone missed the point, the 1980s were long years of zero net migration.  Migrants, in the main, merely slotted into a wages structure that had been created years before, and allowed the businesses that had been established on these principles to prosper as never before.

If the economic facts of large-scale inward migration were not fatal to the ambition for ‘evidenced-based policy’, something else was around that did for it.  The volume of newcomers clearly rattled large sections of the population who took to wondering why so much Polish was being spoken on the high streets.  This in itself is not a question that ought to be regarded as surprising, but it was the total hash made by politicians – particularly those on the centre left – in their stumbling efforts to answer it that moved the balance of public opinion more firmly in the direction of xenophobic anxiety.  Narratives of controls as being ‘not fit for purpose’, advanced as much by Labour Home Secretaries as editorials in the Sun or Mail, put the political elites as much as the average citizen in panic mode and the two forces became mutually reinforcing.

So ‘evidence-based policy’ was ditched in favour of spurious targets to ‘bring down net migration to the tens of thousands’ on one side of the divide, and the mass manufacturing to red mugs with the slogan ‘control immigration’ on the other.  Not very edifying.  And as long as the debate about immigration was subordinate to higher priorities, like getting Britain out the EU, or even just being elected to government, then the spinning of fantasy policies could go ahead without any sense that they needed to have at least some relationship of objective circumstances.

The referendum

Though there has been quite a log tail in which nonsense policies have continued to have their advocates, the referendum result has finally brought this phase of the great public conversation on immigration to an end.  The sheer necessity to avoid a catastrophic collapse of businesses across important sectors of the economy has meant that even a Conservative Home Secretary has had to thrash around for some sort of solid rock to cling to.  Where was that little committee we had set up to give us a prop for the fiddly bits of our policies?  Ah yes – the Migration Advisory Committee:  welcome gentlemen, and give us a hand in getting out of this rather dangerous place.

Okay – so that’s the reason why Rudd has now turned to a group of eminent scholars with long years at looking at labour markets behind them to get some sense of the pitfalls immediately ahead and what might be done to avoid them.  But why the late date for the report?

To answer this we need to project ahead to where we can expect to be with Brexit negotiations towards the back end of next year.  It will not be pretty.  So many things are likely to be unresolved and a real sense of panic – already present in the discussion – will be rampant.  The truly difficult stuff over access to the single market, customs union, tariffs and all that will be confusing the British public rather than mobilising them into action on the streets, so the way will still be open to deals on transitional arrangements or whatever to handle those.  But immigration?  If the people who really care about this issue and thought that Brexit would be the way out are not appeased then the Tory party could be seeing revolts across its ranks that will be savage in their effect.

MAC to the rescue

There are few bright lights in this scenario that a Home Secretary can use to guide her way through this mess, and particularly not for one who not-so-secretly believes Brexit is an act of insanity.  The best that can be hoped for is that, so late in the day, someone will step into an impossibly heated argument about the immigration policy the country needs with a set of proposals that appear to address the objective facts of the situation and can be presented as politically non-partisan.

If this is the function that the MAC report is expected to play then we have the complete understanding why Rudd wants its finding to come out so close to the end of Article 50 negotiations.  She knows that its recommendations will be scrutinised and picked-over by Brexiteers with a closeness that will not apply to any other issue on the ‘leave’ agenda.  Back-sliding on the promise to take back control of our borders will feel like a far worse betrayal than anything to do with customs tariffs or the single market.  A Home Secretary who wants to stay ahead of the game will want to limit the time that opponents of MAC’s recommendations will have to mobilise against them should they be in a direction which favours a relatively liberal immigration regime in which the lineaments of freedom of movement can still be recognised.

So that’s the plan.  The eminences of the MAC will have around 14 months to prepare a report that is dense with statistics and case studies that basically make the business case for fairly open borders. It will be published with a fanfare of approval from the CEOs of transnational corporations as well as their smaller counterparts representing sections like tourism, social care, food production and construction.  The vice-chancellors of the grandest universities will be there to cheer the result, and the financial press will deliver its judgement that disaster has been averted.

The six months remaining to the die-hard Brexiteers will not be sufficient to undo this consensus and they will have to fall back on a plan B which will involve monitoring the quarterly immigration statistics to see whether there has been any great reduction in net migration.  The controversy will die down for the time being and some sort of policy to handle post-Brexit immigration in the period after March 2019 will be rolled out in a fairly brief Act of Parliament, which might even get the consent of all the parties.

What’s not to like about this cunning plan?  If you are at the helm of a business of any shape or form it looks like a genius stroke.  Politicians across the centre-left and centre-right part of the spectrum will welcome the heat being drawn from what has always been a rancorous debate.  The dissenters will be the hard-line anti-immigrant people who would pay any price in terms of economic slow-down if only it meant less foreigners speaking their babble on our public transport, and of course the migrants, who will have seen the rights they currently have vanish in the wash.

That last point, for me, is a good reason to watch the MAC inquiry very closely over the next year.  The inquiry was not set up for this purpose, but we ought to be thinking of ways to get it to consider the cost of diminishing the rights of this group of migrants, which can be expect to be experienced in a number of ways, from an increase in exploitation through to the withdrawal of this group of workers from the labour force. The positive side of the EU’s freedom of movement policies – which have provided for rights to equality of treatment, security of residence, opportunities for family reunion and protection from discrimination – are too important to be traded away in order to keep the querulous native British masses in their place.

The speech Jeremy Corbyn should make at the start of Brexit negotiations

The speech Jeremy Corbyn should make at the start of Brexit negotiations

Jezza’s stunning advance in the election campaign has placed him in a commanding position to dictate the terms of the political agenda.  What he says and does during the course of the Brexit negotiations is his next big challenge.

It is time to tackle the ambiguity around some of the positions that have come out from his front bench over the course of the last few months.  He should aim to give real heart to Labour’s new and returning supporters by combining his anti-austerity message with the a clear statement of support for the important right of freedom of movement.

Here’s my take on the speech he should give to declare his intention to really shift the debate on Brexit.

Press release

Date: (Before time runs out…)

Labour will not make the ending of free movement a pre-condition for the best deal on Brexit

“The Labour Party, like everyone else, has been facing up to the challenges that will confront our country as the business of negotiating our departure from the European Union gets underway.

“We have made it clear that we will fight for a Brexit that protects jobs and the public services which together make up the standard of life of our citizens, and also reinforce the sense that we live in communities in which everyone works for each other.

“How do we now plan for our exit of the EU in a way which will not do damage to all the things we value in our society, as well as the degree of prosperity we have achieved from being a member of the world’s largest trading bloc?”

Positive benefits

“Labour has always recognised that immigration has been a big part of the positive side of life in Britain, helping to strengthen the country by bringing in skills and an aptitude for work which we have always seen from newcomers, from the Huguenots, to the post-war Commonwealth citizens, right through to the EU nationals of today: all those who have made their homes here. 

“Contrary to the claims of migration’s opponents, immigration has helped maintained the buoyancy of the UK economy, particularly in recent very challenging years, helping hundreds of thousands of businesses remain viable so that they can support the high levels of employment we have enjoyed, even during the worst years of the downturn.

“Claims are made that it has depressed wage levels.  Yet we know these have been held back most severely in parts of the country where immigration not taken place on any large scale.  The over-long, too-weak recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-12 is the most obvious reason why wage earners in Britain are experiencing real pressure on their stand of living.

“It is also said that immigrants are responsible for the declining state of our public services, with healthcare and education being cited as examples.

“I will now say that Labour categorically refutes this accusation.  As we now know from reports of a 96% fall in the number of nurses from the EU countries being recruited to work in the NHS, and that fact that one-third of those already here are considering returning abroad because of the uncertainty that has been created about their long-term residents’ rights, the real danger lies in fact that immigration will cease to bring these much-needed workers into our hospitals and clinics.

“The same can be said about our schools and universities.  In parts of the country which have received most immigrants in recent times we have seen educational standards rising to their highest points.  One in six of our school teachers across the UK were born in other countries.  The government has been failing to meet targets to recruit and retain teachers from domestic sources for several years now, and this has resulted in higher recruitment of much-valued entrants into the profession from abroad”.

Concerns of business and the trade unions

“I have had the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of the country since my election as Labour leader in 2015.  During this time I have spoken to the owners of businesses operating in IT and the creative industries, social care, hospitality, construction, food production and many others, as well the people running our great public services.  They all tell me that Britain must remain an open and friendly place for workers from other countries if they are to continue to provide opportunities for decent jobs both for the newcomers and, crucially, for those UK-born citizens who continue to benefit from an economy generating work for all.

“I have spoken to the trade unions and am aware of their concerns about the higher risks of exploitation that have emerged in recent times as a result of poor regulation of the jobs market and, in some instances, because of EU measures regarding the agencies and the posting of overseas staff. 

“We understand these concerns and we are determined to address them.  A Labour government will favour industry-wide collective bargaining.  The agreed rate for the job will apply to all, whether UK citizen or newly-arrived migrant worker on a temporary contract.  There will be no need to fear the under-cutting of agreed wage rates and employment conditions once these measures are in place.”

Regional policies with the powers to deal with impacts

“People have said that there has not been a problem with migration as such, but rather with the fact that there has been too much over too short a period of time.  Yet even this is contradicted by the fact that the parts of the country with some of the highest levels of newcomers are reporting the least negative views about the impacts of migration. 

“We accept that there are places where, because industries have expanded in relatively short periods of time, that the arrival of workers to fill the job vacancies has brought about stresses and strains.  Labour will deal with this by instigating regional planning policies which ensure that economic growth that brings in new workers will go hand-in-hand with investment in housing, publics services, including healthcare, schools and public transport.  We will ensure that local government in these districts will be sufficiently well-resourced to support community inclusion programmes, including English language classes and activities to promote contact and bridge-building across communities.”

Social justice and fairness

“Labour’s approach to immigration is part and parcel of our approach to social justice and human rights.  I have spoken of workers and wage-earners up until now because we know that is the biggest reason why people come to Britain.  But we reject the idea that people can be reduced to commodities, to be used and discarded when their work is done. 

“Our politics for immigration include support for the families that the newcomers will be raising.  When action and policies are needed on our part to help redress hardship and suffering, particularly that which has been experienced by refugees, migrants with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups, then Labour will ensure that an active and energised civil society is in a position to provide it.

 “We are also aware that the opportunity to move beyond borders is a vital part of the outlook of a rising generation of young people who are now making their impression on the shape and direction of our democratic politics.  They will not forgive us if the advantages that have been enjoyed by their parents and grandparents, to live, study, work and settle in other places are withheld from them.  They will not be by any Labour government.

“Labour is confident in its firm view that migration has and will continue to benefit us all.  We expect that it will play a part in the plans of businesses and communities to forge ahead in the future.  We see no issues on the agenda that cannot be addressed by a positive and inclusive approach.  We believe that British citizens are reaching out for this future and this viewpoint becomes a majority as we move into the millennial generation.

“It is for this reason that I can say, as negotiations begin with our European friends for the best possible Brexit deal, that Labour will not make an end to the freedom of movement that has prevailed for so long a pre-condition for any deal which will carry us forward into our future partnership.

“There is much to consider in the matters of our future relationship with the single market and the customs union, but on this point it should be clear: freedom of movement between our countries can and should be preserved into the post-Brexit future!”  

Anarchism and migration: Lessons in getting a social struggle wrong

Anarchism and migration: Lessons in getting a social struggle wrong

A review of No Borders: The Politics if Immigration Control and Resistance by Natasha King, Zed Books, 2016

This book is quite some way off the account of the dynamics of migrant resistance to border control that I thought it would be. It is built around reflections on struggles taking place in Athens and Calais in which the author participated, but migrants only figure in this as rather vague sketches intended to illustrate some point about anarchist theory. We get no sense of the reasons why the people in these situations are on the move and why they seem to be willing to risk everything to get to some final destination. Instead we are offered a high-blown theory about ‘the autonomy of migration’, as though those on the move are motivated by an existential desire for freedom for its own sake.

In my view if you get the reason why people migrate wrong then everything else you say about the issue is likely to be a bunch of hooey. Making the search for ‘autonomy’ the critical issue generates the delusion that the activist and the migrant are some sort of soulmates on the same road to absolute freedom, King goes on to spin a theory of solidarity which binds people together with the tenuous threads of mutual regard for each other’s projects. Some anthropological notions about equality are prayed in aid for this argument and the strategic problems which the book seems to think are central are how it is possible to live out the experience of non-hierarchical, mutually-reinforcing action without doing deals with the state.

This ranks high amongst all the examples of privileged activists imposing their agendas on the struggles of people who exist many rungs lower down the social ladder than themselves. The dilemmas of being an anarchist and the opportunities that might exist for creating non-hierarchical spaces displaces the actual essential task of reducing the power of the capitalist state in determining the lives of people whose very existence requires forcing a break with its processes and controls. The world of the anarchist activist is one of a constant flurry of social experiments in communality and efforts at the pre-figuration of a social order in which external coercion has ceased to exist. But in the case of the type of egoistical anarchism which King seems to favour, even this takes place in a Foucauldian universe where repression is a permanent condition for the human soul and where the state itself is raised a bleak authority in which its capitalist features are only a peripheral issue.

This is a current which lost any connection with the profound critique of capitalism that brought other versions of the anarchist creed to a point of influence amongst a swathe of the European and American subaltern classes a few generations back. There is a world of difference between a starting point which says that the state takes the form that it does because of the capitalism interests that lie at its heart, and one that assumes that it is merely another manifestation of authority and its desire to oppress. This book makes no more than a few scattered references to capitalism as such, and when they occur they subsume the notion to just one of several different species of deplorable activity that anarchists tend to be against.

The result is an account of collaborations between ‘activists’ and migrants which are always disappointing. The disappointment is all the greater because the anarchist invests so much hope in the migrant being the hero of her fantasy of a group of human beings who are intent on living ‘autonomous’ lives. They are ‘refusing the state’ and the challenge for the activist is to make sure that they do not backslide into compromises that might bring about only partial gains. King makes it clear that she appreciates that a conundrum exists here and she calls on her comrades to be more understanding that ‘engagement’ with the forces that are denying you the right to cross a border is pretty well the inevitable consequence of fighting them in the first place. The thing to strive for from this perspective is a set of institutions – safe houses, communal kitchens, community centres and the like – which embody anarchist ethics and which might be the basis for an investment in a future, alternative, way of existence.

Unfortunately the examples she offers from her experiences in working with migrants in Athens and Calais show just how vulnerable these experiments are to be washed away by a turbulent political and economic environment. If what we want from our activism is lessons well learnt about the nature of the power we are up against that haven’t come from this experience. Despondency, if not outright despair, seems to be the legacy of jungle camps that are raided by police, migrant personal belongings wrecked, and people scattered to the wind. The brief experience of communal living ends up as not much more than a wistful memory after the evictions have taken place and the authorities cease control of the property.

Yet there is a rock which is capable of breaking the force of the current that would sweep people on the move on to defeat. It is a type of organisation which, maybe existing as nothing much more than an ephemeral network of collaborating organisations and individuals, nevertheless has learning about the ways in which the enemy can be taken on and defeated at its core. The task that lies at the heart of this collaboration is understanding how capitalism structures the state and the ways that this configures the controls that exist at borders. This process brings us face-to-face with a vast range of tensions as the interests of different stakeholders within the system of power clash and begin to reveal the extent of the contradictions that exist at every level of the social system. A strategy which aims to maximise opportunities for escape from the control of the state when it comes to exercising a right to move freely needs to be more cognisant of what the nature of these conflicts are and how they can be used to the advantage of the subject group.

When the various collectives and networks whose work King reviews are really doing a useful job (and, if this review seems rather negative in assessing their role, let me say that I think they do a lot of really important work) then they will be alongside migrants in accomplishing this task of probing and pushing back at the structures of power. This, after all, is what migrants who are on the move do all the time in any event. Grandiose ideas about exercising an autonomous right to migrant seldom figure in the plans of a Filipina social care worker looking to evade the onerous obligations of being ‘self-sufficient’ as she pursues her profession, or the Eritrean refugee stopped by border controls from reaching the networks that would provide support and a degree of security.

What they want are tactics which will push back and paralyse the efforts of immigration controllers to harass, imprison and deport them. A movement which builds on the capacity of the working class to resist the oppression and exploitation endemic to the capitalist system ought to be able to play a role in helping migrants in achieving that end. What a shame that anarchist theory, which once helped workers and peasants organise a practical fightback against capitalism has, in the egoistical version presented in this book, got so little to say about how those battles might be resumed..