The launch of UKIP’s immigration policy was always going to be a newsworthy event, especially when it became clear that Nigel Farage’s party was not going to walk into the trap of humiliating the Conservative Party by committing to an arbitrary (and ultimately unachievable) target for net migration.
Many openly antagonistic commentators and journalists are painting Nigel Farage’s refusal to set a precise immigration target as a political error or missed opportunity. But in reality, this pragmatic stance – and advocacy of an Australian-style points-based immigration system – suggests a maturing political party that understands both the constraints of government and the need to be honest with the people.
Writing in The Telegraph this week, Nigel Farage revealed:
People want to know more about Ukip’s policies. The issue of mass migration is one of the most important to British people, and as we aspire to hold the balance of power after the election, we have an obligation to set out our stall.
So let me say we believe that migration into the United Kingdom is too high. It’s affecting the NHS. It affects policing, school places, infrastructure, wages, and the make-up of local communities. This is why Ukip wants to see a Migration Control Commission – with a remit to bring down net immigration, while assuring the right number of highly skilled workers from across the globe are able to enter.
This body will be tasked with establishing and controlling the Australian-style points system. While politicians and the people they represent determine the direction of travel for this country, we will not, unlike the other parties, seek to set arbitrary targets which only result in broken promises.
This blog is slightly less sceptical than UKIP about immigration per se, but fully agrees that arbitrary targets for net migration are meaningless. The amount of immigration which is “good” or “excessive” depends on a whole range of factors, from the skills profiles of the immigrants themselves to the performance of the economy as a whole, the preparedness of the domestic workforce and the state of the labour market in different industries.
An arbitrary immigration target, set by central government with the aim of pleasing the newspapers rather than doing what is right for the country, can never properly reflect all of these moving parts. And the fact that immigration may be considered “excessive” in some circumstances is in no way a negative reflection on the character and human value of individual immigrants themselves, and is certainly not the product of any racist or xenophobic sentiment, despite the best efforts of the left to suggest otherwise.
In fact, if left-wing critics could only suppress their instinct to simply brand every UKIP pronouncement as “racist” without thinking, they might see that a points-based immigration policy actually aims to help the poor and the disadvantaged, people for whom they claim to speak.
To the extent that immigration provides a marginal benefit to the country (not just in terms of tax contributions versus benefit costs, for we all know that migrants are net contributors, but looking more broadly at the social and economic costs), it would be welcomed under a points-based system. But as soon as that tipping point is reached where the marginal costs of immigration begin to outweigh the benefits as a result of local tensions, overstretched infrastructure or entrenched unemployment, the brake is applied.
Those on the left claim to care about the long-term unemployed, the undereducated and the marginalised (and ludicrously suggest that others do not). Therefore they should welcome a policy that aims to welcome skilled migrants from all over the world, rather than being biased in favour of unskilled Europeans, while balancing the benefits of immigration with the impact on the most vulnerable in our society.
But it’s so much easier to sit on the sidelines crying “racism!” while ignoring the fact that uncontrolled immigration into a rich country overwhelmingly benefits the upper and the middle classes while actively harming the poorest among us. This is the product of a broad streak of immaturity which blights left-wing thinking, characterised by the desire to feel and appear compassionate by favouring unlimited immigration and welfare without conditions, while deliberately failing to confront or even acknowledge the negative costs and consequences of these positions.
Some commentators, such as the Telegraph’s Dan Hodges, have damned UKIP with faint praise for supposedly “seeing the light” by acknowledging the futility of setting an unachievable target:
Politically, it’s questionable just how beneficial this change of tone and stance will be. Perceptions of Ukip are already baked in, and – given the vehemence of Ukip’s language to date – baked in hard. The change of tone will undoubtedly sow a degree of anxiety and confusion amongst the purple-rinse true believers. And there will also be justifiable cynicism at the spectacle of a party that floated a policy of enforced repatriation in the middle of the Rochester and Strood by-election suddenly posing as the migrant’s friend.
But whether the move is cynical or sincere is actually irrelevant. What matters is Ukip’s toxic rhetoric on immigration – rhetoric that was not just contaminating the debate on migration but British politics in general – ceases. It’s not necessary for Nigel Farage to recast himself as the new Martin Luther King. All he needs to do is stop casting himself as the new Nick Griffin.
Meanwhile, Isabel Hardman at The Spectator suggests that UKIP is letting the Tories off the hook just as the Conservative Party descends into internal warfare over whether or not to include the promise of an immigration target in their election manifesto, given their dismal but predictable failure to meet their last target:
But what’s now really important for Ukip as it writes its manifesto (one that will be out later than all the other parties’ manifestos, Farage said today) is that it doesn’t make promises that appear to be impossible to keep. And that in turn is quite helpful for the Tories, as one of the problems they’ve struggled to deal with when countering the threat of Ukip is that Ukip tends to promise more than is possible, as well as more than is really desirable beyond something that gets a good headline.
The Tories therefore could not match those promises, and were left trailing, but the admission today that a target might not be the best idea is mildly helpful for them, though anyone who declares that this is the moment that Ukip started to fade away is either blessed with special powers of prophecy or overly confident: no such declarations have been proven true to this point.
But UKIP have tacitly acknowledged the futility of the British government setting an immigration target all along – this is hardly a sudden new realisation, as Dan Hodges implies with his highly selective quotations from past UKIP comments on immigration. Indeed, the fact that a British government effectively has no sovereign control over immigration at all is one of UKIP’s key reasons for wanting Britain to leave the European Union, alongside the regaining of national sovereignty in a number of other key areas.
UKIP’s pragmatic immigration policy should be taken as a welcome sign that Nigel Farage’s party are resisting the temptation to make lofty, false promises in the way of the major parties. How easy it would have been, against a backdrop of Conservative disarray and infighting, for UKIP to have announced that a 50,000 net migration cap would appear in their manifesto, while slamming the two incumbent parties for failing to meet their own much easier target while in government. That path of least resistance was wide open for Nigel Farage to take.
But UKIP’s response was mature, and refreshingly devoid of the usual impulse to capitalise on another party’s misfortune at the expense of political or ideological consistency. Presented with the opportunity to seize the poisoned chalice of tying their credibility to an unenforceable immigration cap, UKIP refused to take the bait.
If only UKIP demonstrated the same willingness to forfeit quick political wins for the long term good on the contentious topic of healthcare and the NHS as they now seem to be displaying with regard to immigration, we might finally have a political party worth getting excited about.