Rethinking Policy Impact: Four Models of Research-Policy Relations

Christina Boswell and Katherine Smith

Political scientists are increasingly exhorted to ensure their research has policy ‘impact’, most notably via Research Excellence Framework (REF) impact case studies, and ‘pathways to impact’ statements in UK Research Council funding applications. Yet the assumptions underpinning these frameworks often fail to reflect available evidence and theories. Notions of ‘impact’, ‘engagement’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ are typically premised on simplistic, linear models of the policy process, according to which policy-makers are keen to ‘utilise’ expertise to produce more ‘effective’ policies. Such accounts overlook the rich body of literature in political science, policy studies, and sociology of knowledge, which offer more complex and nuanced accounts.

In a paper just published in the PalgraveComms series on the Future of Research Assessment, we set out four different approaches to theorising the relationship between knowledge and policy (summarised in diagram below): (1) knowledge shapes policy; (2) politics shapes knowledge; (3) co-production; and (4) autonomous spheres. We consider what each of these four approaches suggests about approaches to incentivising and measuring research impact.

The first approach focuses on how research can be used ‘instrumentally’, to adjust policy. On this account, policy-makers draw on research and ‘evidence’ to produce more effective policies. As many have pointed out, this model – which underpins REF and HEFCE approaches to impact – relies on a rather simplistic model of the policy process, according to which policy-makers seek out the best evidence to adjust policy in a way that will improve policy outputs. But more sophisticated accounts of policy-making have long questioned this linear, rationalist account.

A more nuanced version of the instrumentalist account can be found in Carole Weiss’s notion of the conceptual, or ‘enlightenment’ function of knowledge. Weiss’s argument is that research can influence policy, but more typically in the form of ideational adjustments, brought about through incremental processes, typically influenced by a diffuse body of research rather than individual findings.

What implications would this account have for efforts to incentivise, measure and reward research impact? Weiss’s notion of research as ‘enlightenment’ challenges the notion that researchers or institutions should be rewarded for claims about the impact of individual studies. Instead, impact frameworks should be oriented towards encouraging collaboration and shared research agendas. And they should assume that research generally has a longer-term, incremental impact, often through shaping the framing of policy problems.

The second set of theories focuses on how politics and policy shape knowledge production and use. These accounts imply the need to be far more sceptical of the impact agenda: indeed, it is naïve to assume that researchers can speak truth to power. The upshot is that researchers should not be rewarded for their supposed impact, since policy actors employ research for political reasons, rather than to improve the quality or effectiveness of policies.

Thus from this perspective, the fundamental idea of promoting research ‘impact’ ought to be resisted, since the take-up of research is contingent on political agendas, rather than the societal utility of the research. This perspective also draws attention to the risk that moves to incentivise impact may lead to the politicisation of research, as researchers may reorient their research in a way that fits existing political agendas.

The third set of theories builds on the notion of co-production. Similar to the second approach, such accounts see knowledge as profoundly shaped by politics. But the notion of co-production focuses not just on the social and political constitution of science. It is also attentive to the other direction of influence: the ways in which governance is itself constituted by scientific knowledge. So rather than limiting its attention to how politics shapes knowledge, the notion of co-production posits that scientific and expert knowledge contribute to the construction of political reality.

Co-production accounts imply the need for a far more sophisticated, ethnographic methodology for examining how research and governance are mutually constitutive. They also argue that social science should not necessarily be understood as the ‘solution’ to social problems. Through its various scientific and technical innovations, science does not simply solve governance problems, but it also creates new ones – implying that the effects of research on policy are not always be benign or helpful. These accounts provide a radically different way of thinking about research impact, and suggest that approaches to incentivising and rewarding impact ought to do more to consider the desirability of such impact, ideally on a case by case basis.

The fourth approach, by contrast, posits that science and politics are autonomous systems, each guided by a distinct logic. Science is preoccupied with questions of truth and verifiability, while politics is preoccupied with power, and the production of collectively binding decisions. Each system relies on the other in importance ways; for example, science depends on resources from the political system. But there is no overarching causality between the two systems: science cannot ‘cause’ changes in politics. Instead, politics needs to observe and give meaning to science from its own, political, perspective.

Viewed from this perspective, the impact agenda should be treated cautiously by researchers. As with the second group of theories, systems theorists would argue that politics only selectively deploys scientific findings, insofar as they are meaningful to the political system. Perhaps more seriously, the impact agenda has risks diverting science from its core task of developing truth claims.

Both the second and fourth accounts suggest that the very idea of trying to incentivize the use of research in policy is flawed. On these accounts, we should be cautious about adopting systems that reward researchers for influencing policy. Such impacts are spurious, in that their apparent influence is down to pre-given interests or independent political dynamics; or they are the result of researchers aligning research questions and approaches to pre-fit political agendas. By rewarding researchers for achieving impact we are adopting an arbitrary incentive system that is at best decoupled from research quality, and at worst, threatens the integrity and independence of social science.

For those more sympathetic to the idea of ‘research impact’, the first and third approaches might offer more hope. Nonetheless, both approaches caution against rewarding individual researchers for ‘achieving’ research impact based on narrow indicators (e.g., citations in policy documents).

The enlightenment model suggests that research impact involves subtle, incremental and diffuse ideational adjustments over a long period of time, which are generated by a wide range of research insights rather than specific individual findings. Thus impact frameworks should reward collaborative endeavours that build incrementally on a wider body of work, and that may bring about subtle conceptual shifts, rather than clearly identifiable policy changes. Here, then, the focus might be on rewarding collaboration and knowledge exchange activities, rather than rewarding evidence of ‘demonstrable impacts’.

Co-production approaches, by contrast, would imply the need for much more in-depth, qualitative research on the complex relationships between knowledge and governance. But such approaches have also pointed to the performative effects of research: the ways in which (social) science can re-shape the social world it seeks to describe. This implies that models to promote engagement with knowledge users need to be attentive not just to the complex pathways to research impact, but also to the very real ethical implications of research influence. Not only can the impact agenda affect the practices of social science, as is widely recognised in social science literature; social science can also instigate new policy problems. Proponents of policy impact should have a care what they wish for.


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Free Movement of Workers: Scotland’s Needs are Different but Flexibility Likely to Go

As the UK starts considering what its immigration policy will look like after Brexit, it is becoming clearer quite how well the EEA free movement provisions have worked for industry, public services, and for many local communities. This means it is going to be extremely hard to replace it in a way that suits all those who feel they have a stake in future UK immigration.

Benefits to employers

Let’s start with economic and labour market goals. Not only did free movement provide a ready source of labour across skills levels, occupations and regions. It also offered firms a flexible channel for recruitment, which bypassed the various bureaucratic hurdles of the UK immigration system. Unlike provisions for recruiting non-EEA nationals under ‘Tier 2’, employers did not have to undertake a resident labour market test, apply for sponsor status or impose skills or salary thresholds. So employers in all sorts of firms and public sector organisations could recruit suitably qualified staff without high costs and red tape. And they could do this for lower-skilled and lower-paid jobs, something not possible under the Tier 2 route, which is restricted to high qualified workers, and those earning at least £30,000 (or £20,800 for new entrants) – barring some exceptions.

Benefits to employees

Of course, this highly flexible arrangement has not been without its problems. Many EEA nationals have ended up taking jobs below their skills level, at lower wages and with less secure contracts than equivalently qualified UK workers. And some sectors have avoided investing in technology and switching to less labour intensive models because of the availability of low-cost labour. But clearly, EEA mobility has been a boon to many employers, especially smaller firms and those requiring lower-skilled employees.

The second virtue of this model was to allow EEA migrants a high degree of flexibility in their mobility decisions. The free movement framework has allowed them to hold down often precarious, seasonal and low-paid work, because of the possibility of returning home between jobs, bringing over family to help with caring, accessing tax credits and benefits, as well as public services. And it has allowed people to adjust their plans on where to live and work, and when to stay or return, allowing them to deal with uncertainty and risk, and their changing life circumstances.

This set of arrangements has undoubtedly facilitated the flexible matching of labour to skills across the country – and has aided integration in local communities. By contrast, Tier 2 provisions impose a much more rigid framework, with limited potential for these types of adjustments.

Flexibility across the UK

But I want to emphasise a third way in which these provisions have been flexible: they have served to accommodate quite divergent immigration goals across areas of the UK. Let’s consider how immigration has been framed over the past decades. At UK level, the rhetoric on EEA mobility initially revolved around its benefits for the UK labour market and economy. At a time of high employment and economic growth in the early to mid 2000s, EEA workers filled shortages, boosted productivity and growth, and contributed to the public purse.

As the UK economy contracted after 2008, and successive governments started to limit immigration, the story amongst economic experts and business circles was still one of addressing skills shortage – with the emphasis shifting to the highly qualified. Increasingly, those with lower skills were seen as a problem, and the EEA framework blamed for preventing the government from selecting those (high-skilled) immigrants seen as most economically beneficial.

Scotland and free movement

But in Scotland, EEA nationals across all skills levels continued to be welcomed as contributing not just to the economy, but to key demographic goals. And here we need to understand the radically distinct ways in which immigration is framed in Scotland. Contrary to the labour market/economic model prevailing in the South East of England (and in the UK debate more generally), Scottish policy makers have long viewed immigration as a crucial part of their population growth strategy.

Scotland was plagued by a declining population until the late 1980s. And with its longer, traumatic history of depopulation in the 19th century, the spectre of population decline continues to weigh heavily in government planning. Through the 2000s and 2010s, Scotland was able to stem population decline – and indeed enjoy modest growth – thanks to immigration. Some of this immigration is from the rest of the UK, but increasingly, the lion’s share has been from overseas, and especially EEA countries. In 2016, for example, Scotland experienced net immigration of 31,700 – of which 22,900 (72%) were from overseas, and just 8,800 from other parts of the UK.

Now population growth isn’t just about abstract numbers. It underpins economic growth, and – crucially – helps offset the acute problems caused by population ageing. Scotland’s population is set to age more swiftly than the UK average, creating huge fiscal problems (paying for pensions, health and social services), as well as labour shortages. Immigration is seen as key to addressing this.

Depopulation is felt most acutely in remote rural and coastal areas of Scotland. Here, the effects of declining and ageing population are already setting in, creating not just labour shortages in key industries (e.g. agriculture, forestry, food processing and tourism), but also jeopardising the provision of public services such as health and schools. Again, EEA nationals have helped offset these problems, with families settling across all areas of Scotland, and integrating into local communities.

Thus for Scotland, immigration isn’t just about an economic calculation based on labour and skills gaps. It is also about addressing a wider set of demographic challenges, with very real consequences for wider society, including the viability of remote communities.

A One-Size fits all approach will cause problems

EEA mobility has masked these differences. It has proved adept in addressing a wide range of economic, social and demographic challenges across the UK. But the types of immigration policies likely to replace this framework are unlikely to be so accommodating. The emphasis in current debates – including the leaked Home Office paper – is on more limited routes, which prioritise high skills, with lower-skilled occupations enjoying only restricted rights, and no pathway to permanent settlement. This package will do little to attract the volume of immigration sought by the Scottish government. And it will prove difficult, if not impossible, to attract and retain migrants not meeting these skills requirements, especially remoter areas.

The UK government is predictably wary of allowing Scotland and other regions to pursue a more liberal approach (various options for ‘differentiated’ or ‘regionalised’ policies have been mooted – see our paper on this subject). With the government’s net migration target still in place, and the perceived need to show that Brexit will bring back ‘control’ of immigration, the last thing Theresa May wants to do is let the Scots develop a more permissive approach. All the more so given expected media reporting on Scotland as a ‘back door’ to the rest of the UK.

But the UK government would do well to acknowledge the very different set of concerns animating Scottish policy-makers – concerns which, significantly, are shared across all the main political parties in Scotland. Westminster and Whitehall need to engage in debate about the demographic challenges facing Scotland – and recognise the country’s distinctive policy approach to its framing of immigration goals. EEA mobility has masked these divergences. Brexit will mean they surface with a vengeance, creating another faultline in already fraught Union politics.

This blog was first posted on the Scottish Centre for European Relations website.

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After border control: how internal controls are becoming the most potent tool in immigration enforcement

Last Wednesday, the UK Government published its long-awaited Position Paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland, setting out how it hoped to maintain a border-free zone with Ireland once it has left the EU.

Section 2. of the paper deals with maintenance of the Common Travel Area – suggesting how the UK and Ireland might sustain free movement and rights of Irish and UK nationals post-Brexit. Many commentators have questioned how these provisions can be preserved, once the UK starts to impose restrictions on the free movement of EEA nationals. But the paper helpfully clarifies a few misconceptions that have caused much confusion over the past month.

The key point is that any immigration restrictions on EEA nationals are likely to be enforced post-entry. In other words, immigration control won’t take place at the border, but once people are in the UK. Indeed, it is likely that EEA nationals will continue to be able to enter the UK (as visitors) after Brexit. What will change is not their ability to travel to the UK, but their right to reside and work in the country. Once the UK leaves the Single Market, it is assumed that EEA nationals will no longer enjoy an automatic entitlement to live and work in the UK. And these new restrictions will be enforced through checks and controls on access to employment, benefits and services.

The UK is rightly confident in its ability to enforce immigration rules through such internal checks. Over the past few decades the government has been rolling out its capacity to control non-nationals resident in the UK. Key to this approach is to enlist organizations in other sectors – whether employers, social services, higher education, healthcare, private housing, or banks – to enforce restrictions on the access of irregular immigrants to social and economic services. Most notably, employers and higher education organizations have been given the role of ‘sponsors’ who are delegated the responsibility of monitoring employees and students from outside the EU. These policies are intended to create a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants, making it impossible for them to carve out a viable life in the UK. This approach recognises that border control cannot effectively stop irregular migration, a large portion of which involves overstay of visas.

Of course, it is always possible that EEA nationals may successfully evade these controls. But they will have limited incentives to do so – given the risks and difficulties associated with trying to access employment, housing, banking or health without authorisation. Indeed, the types of mobility most associated with irregular stay and work involve those employed in lower-skilled, lower-paid and less regulated sectors – such as informal work in domestic services or some areas of agriculture, construction, hospitality and catering, where employers may have less incentive to check documentation and employ workers on the books. Recall, too, that those most likely to be drawn into such irregular work and stay are those with limited life prospects in their country of origin – those without attractive or viable alternatives. So irregular status in the UK is unlikely to be an appealing long-term prospect for nationals from relatively stable and prosperous EEA countries.

What may be more of a headache for the UK government is potential cross-border flows of non-EEA nationals, especially those with the features described above – escaping difficult conditions at home, and employed in lower-skilled and less regulated sectors. Here, there may be some potential for cross-border movements resulting in irregular stay and work. But here, as the paper points out, UK and Irish policy is broadly aligned. Neither country is part of the Schengen Zone – and they have developed close cooperation on visa and entry policies for third country nationals. The principal risk here is if Ireland were to join Schengen – a prospect that seems highly unlikely, given both Ireland and the EU’s support for sustaining the CTA.

So the paper doesn’t offer much that is new or surprising on immigration control. But the paper’s explicit clarification of these points about border and internal immigration control does offer food for thought.

First, it weakens one of the arguments marshalled against Scotland (or other parts of the UK) adopting a differentiated approach to immigration. One of the main arguments against such a devolved approach is that it risks onward movement from Scotland to the rest of the UK – Scotland would become a ‘back door’ for immigrants. But this position paper acknowledges that this is not a problem in relation to Ireland, even in the event of the UK leaving the Single Market – that much immigration control effectively takes place post-entry, and that it is possible to align visa policy for third-country nationals. So that knocks out one of the main arguments for refusing Scotland more autonomy over its immigration policy (see our recent paper on this-authored with Sarah Kyambi and Saskia Smellie).

Second, it implies that future UK immigration policy may rely more on such internal controls. The subtle message of the paper seems to be: trust us, we have further plans in this area. The area of internal immigration controls has evolved rapidly over the past years. But successive governments have also been frustrated at resistance from some sectors, who are reluctant to play a role in enforcement (teachers and doctors have been notably reticent about complying). Remember, too, the demise of Labour’s universal ID card plan – a scheme which may well be revived to deal with new migration control challenges. It wouldn’t be surprising if such proposals find their way back onto the agenda. In short, we are likely to see a further push for these forms of post-entry control.

As a final thought, if the UK is developing internal enforcement in this way, it begs the question as to whether such controls could address concerns about EEA immigration – those very concerns that prompted many to support Brexit. One of the reasons the UK has implemented free movement provisions in a less robust way than some of its continental neighbours is its lack of state capacity to monitor the whereabouts of non-nationals (an issue we are exploring in our ESRC project on “Seeing Illegal Immigrants”). The UK lacks the type of registration system and ID cards that most EU countries have had for decades. The UK is also hampered in this by its welfare system. EU countries with contributory welfare systems are better equipped to exclude new (EU) immigrants from welfare benefits. In the event of the UK deciding it needs to accept free movement provisions to retain access to the Single Market, the UK government is likely to need to rethink these provisions.

So whether in or out of the Single Market, we should watch this space. The exigencies of immigration control are likely to have a profound effect on how the state monitors, and allocates resources to, its population.






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Sustaining Immigration to Scotland After Brexit: What are the Options?

Today we launched a report which looks at the options for a ‘differentiated’ approach to immigration policy in Scotland.

The report provides a rigorous tool for appraising a range of approaches, drawing on experiences from across Europe, Canada and Australasia. The different options are rated on their potential to address Scottish immigration needs and also their practical and political viability for the UK as a whole.

The report says that the schemes best suited to address Scotland’s economic and demographic needs – such as the points-based system used in Australia and Canada – are potentially the most difficult to sell politically. The Australian/Canadian systems offer a flexible tool for selecting immigrants, and foster integration through allowing generous access to permanent residence.

While such a scheme would be practically viable for Scotland, it would require a substantial shift in public perceptions and in the position of the current UK Government, which favours reducing immigration.

More politically feasible options include making smaller adjustments to the current immigration system to meet skills and labour shortages. Options include adjusting current Tier 2 schemes to allow lower skills or salary thresholds for Scottish employers, or reintroducing a post-study work scheme.

The report warns against regulating lower-skilled immigration through temporary and seasonal schemes that offer limited rights and protection for workers. It is in lower-skilled jobs ¬ the part of the economy that employs most EEA nationals – where labour gaps are most likely to appear post-Brexit.

Instead, there is a need to design systems that encourage the workers that Scotland needs to settle and integrate in Scotland.

The report was co-authored with Sarah Kyambi and Saskia Smellie, colleagues at the University of Edinburgh. You can read the full report here.

You can also read coverage of the report in the Herald.

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The rejection of expertise damages public debate, but it also creates risks for populist governments

One common feature of populist anti-immigration movements is their eschewal of expertise. Populist movements mobilise support through claiming to articulate the interests of ‘the people’ as against established institutions and elites. They mobilise support against a discredited ruling elite and their values: not just those seen as part of the political and economic establishment but also the media, academics and other experts (Canovan 1999). While populism does not necessarily imply the rejection of technocratic measures (Mudde 2004), populist styles of mobilisation tend to reject complex, technical arguments in favour of simple claims and spontaneous action.

This implies that populist claims are not typically backed up with ‘evidence’ or specialised experience. Part of their appeal may derive precisely from their defiance of such expertise. As Michael Freeden puts it, populist claims are characterised by their simplicity and urgency – they should not be ‘adulterated by reflection and deliberation’. And they promise immediate fulfilment – dispensing with planning and negotiation in order to achieve instantaneous results.

This might imply that populist parties are shifting debate away from more technical or evidence-based forms of deliberation – what in previous work I have termed ‘technocratic modes of settlement’. They are the defenders par excellence of supposedly ‘democratic’ modes of settlement. They want to let ‘the people’ decide.

Yet moderate parties do not necessarily embrace this anti-expert mode of settlement. They may continue to evoke more technocratic or expert sources to underpin their claims. They may still see evidence and specialised knowledge as carrying particular authority in debates on immigration. In this sense, the mode of settlement for weighing up rival claims may itself be contested: there may be quite different understandings of what constitute appropriate ways of evaluating competing claims. In other words, there may be a divide between protagonists who continue to invoke expertise as relevant to deliberation on immigration policy issues, and those who see it as irrelevant.

This type of fracture appears increasingly evident in public political debates across liberal democratic countries experiencing a rise in populist parties. It implies that political contestation goes beyond substantive claims about appropriate policies: it involves more radical disagreement about what constitute legitimate and appropriate modes of settling political debate. So the divide is not just ideological, it reflects fundamentally different epistemological positions.

This is not just a problem for public political deliberation. It also creates a number of challenges for policy-making in national administrations. One of the features of populist claims-making is that it is not constrained by evidence or expert knowledge about the causes and dynamics of social problems, or about the sorts of interventions that may be effective in steering them. Thus the populist rejection of expertise creates an awkward gap between the types of claims grounding pledges, and prevalent modes of knowledge use within the civil service. Populist politics invokes different causal stories about policy problems and responses, drawing on quite distinct sources of knowledge (such as anecdote, public myths, or dystopian scenario-building).

The gap is likely to be especially pronounced where populist movements offer up specific pledges or commit themselves to precise outcomes which can be measured. Incumbents seeking to mobilise support through signalling commitment to populist goals will face substantial challenges when it comes to implementing them.

This clearly creates political risks for populist parties that achieve political power. In many ways, such movements will be more comfortable in opposition than as incumbents. Once in power, they risk being exposed as unable to deliver their simplistic and overly ambitious pledges. This creates what I have termed a ‘populist gap’: a discrepancy between what opposition parties may claim, and what they can feasibly achieve once in government.

How populist-oriented governments manage this risk depends in part on how far they can sustain their narratives about policy problems and their government’s performance, in the face of contradictory evidence. Where the impacts of interventions are diffuse and difficult to measure and attribute, populist governments may evade exposure – and this may well be the case in areas such as immigration control and immigrant integration.

But where their performance is subject to such observation and measurement, then they may be exposed as unable to achieve their goals – as may be the case with, for example, reducing asylum or immigration inflows. In such areas, voters are likely to be disillusioned at the failure of governments to deliver.

So while we may be distressed at the eschewal of expertise and evidence, it is precisely this rejection that creates the most serious risks for populist governments. Where their claims cannot be delivered, they risk exposure. And this exposure is most likely to occur in those areas where their outputs can be monitored.  In this sense, we might want to embrace quantitative targets as a tool for exposing the unfeasibility of governments’ promises. Targets may be distorting and simplifying, but their capacity to hold expose unrealistic claims that have no grounding in evidence creates a strong tool of accountability.

Posted in Immigration, Research & Policy, Symbolic politics | Leave a comment

Taking back control of ideas: How politicians can shape public debates on immigration

Christina Boswell and James Hampshire

New proposals on how to regulate immigration after Brexit are coming thick and fast. But there’s a lot of muddled thinking from the main political parties, especially regarding how to respond to anti-immigrant sentiment amongst sections of the public.

Politicians and commentators often fall into one of two traps. Either they take anti-immigrant sentiment as a given – a legitimate democratic preference, which needs to be taken at face value and respected. On this view, the role of mainstream political parties is to allay concerns through introducing more stringent controls and tougher integration measures.

Alternatively, politicians and pundits understand anti-immigrant sentiment as a problem of ignorance. On this account, large sections of the public hold inaccurate beliefs about the scale and impacts of immigration, and the answer is to better educate people, supply them with robust evidence and facts in order to bust the myths about immigration, and encourage a more enlightened approach.

To be sure, anti-immigrant sentiment and misinformation cannot be ignored. Opposition to immigration is often based on real anger and anxiety about voters’ socio-economic situation, even if many voters do not have accurate information about how immigration affects the economy or public services.

Yet such anxieties are not generally caused by immigration, even if they are readily channelled into concerns about it. Throughout history, immigrants and minority groups have served as a lightning rod for absorbing insecurity and social division. It is much easier to blame foreigners than to understand the complex structural factors that shape our lives.

This is where political elites and the stories they tell — or do not tell — come in. In trying to persuade a sceptical public that immigration is not the threat many of them perceive it to be, narratives and images are probably more important than statistics and data. People do not rationally weigh up evidence, and decide the most appropriate way of venting their concerns. They are far more likely to accept claims that chime with their background beliefs about society or social problems.

In a recent paper we explore how these beliefs shape debates about immigration. We begin from the observation that every society has a repertoire of background ideas which influence collective narratives about social problems. We draw on Vivien Schmidt’s distinction between two levels of ideas. The first, ‘public philosophies’, represent the broad worldviews that shape our beliefs about identity, belonging, and the good society. For example, British self-identity embodies a strong conception of fairness linked to waiting one’s turn and playing by the rules, and it has incorporated hyphenated identities in ways that suggest a less than rigid notion of ethnic criteria for membership. Anti-immigrant sentiment is often articulated in the form of resentment about protecting privileged access to welfare and jobs, rather than in cultural or racial terms.

The second level is ‘programmatic ideas’ about the sorts of policy interventions that work in steering immigration. For example, the UK government tends to emphasise border control and deterrence as effective control mechanisms, while also operating a selective immigration system based on employer demand, albeit with numerical caps. Increasingly, public debate has coalesced around the idea that higher skilled immigration brings economic benefits, while lower skilled, ‘uncontrolled’ immigration places a burden on the public purse.

These background ideas – programmatic but also public philosophies – are not immutable. There is typically a range of values and beliefs that shape narratives of social problems, and these frequently conflict with one another. Politicians can draw on these selectively to construct compelling stories about immigration and its effects.

In our paper, we identify some of the strategies through which politicians can select and shape background ideas about immigration. Political leaders can selectively marshal ideas, foregrounding particular strands of public philosophy over others. And they can draw on shared narratives about policy legacies, to discredit or bolster claims about future policies. We show how such strategies influenced discourse on labour migration in the early 2000s in the UK and Germany.

In the early 2000s, New Labour attempted to justify a new approach by invoking British values of tolerance and diversity, and was successful – at least for a brief period – in uniting mainstream parties and the media around a narrative about the economic benefits of immigration and diversity. In doing so, Blair and his cabinet tapped into public philosophies of Britain as a cosmopolitan and multicultural nation, and programmatic ideas about the importance of attracting skilled workers to boost productivity and growth.

In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its Green coalition partner in the early 2000s attempted to promote a similar approach, drawing on programmatic ideas about Germany as a cutting edge economy attracting the best skills. But the government was initially thwarted in making its case by a Christian Democratic opposition that invoked more protectionist ideas. Paradoxically, over time, SPD/Green ideas about Germany’s need for immigration ushered in a profound shift in background ideas about immigration. This shift underpinned incremental steps towards a more progressive and economically-oriented approach to labour migration.

What is the lesson from this for political leadership on immigration issues? We suggest that political elites can play an important role in shaping narratives of immigration. While they need to anticipate and respond to voters’ preferences, politicians can also exercise influence by invoking background ideas about what sorts of approaches are feasible and legitimate.

Invoking public philosophies, especially those based on normative values, can be used to mobilise identification with – even pride in – shared values and history. See, for example, how the Blair government’s references to Britain’s history of openness underpinned support for immigration policy liberalization. Or, more recently, how invoking Britain’s legacy in assisting Jewish refugees through the Kindertransport has been used by campaigners such as Lord Dubs to exert a powerful moral effect in debates on child refugees.

Yet these examples stand out precisely because they cut against the grain of recent developments in the UK. As the narratives of the far right and the anti-immigrant press have gained prominence, the onus has shifted from public philosophies based on openness and diversity, to those invoking protectionism and nationalism. This has enabled the emergence of beliefs that immigrants are responsible for social problems such as hospital waiting times or housing shortages.

These beliefs will not be shifted by bombarding voters with data, since people rarely change their minds when presented with contrary evidence. Paradoxically, therefore, a more rational debate about immigration cannot be purely rationalistic. Instead, politicians who want to challenge ignorance and prejudice need to construct narratives about immigration and its place in our society which draw on existing public philosophies of openness and inclusion. These public philosophies do exist and they have been mobilized in the recent past. They can and should be resuscitated.


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Assessing proposals for post-Brexit immigration policy: devolution or a tiered approach?

It’s been a busy few days for immigration policy wonks. On Thursday 5th, the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, headed by Chuka Umunna, proposed a new approach to immigration policy, including proposals for more robust measures on integration and for the devolution of immigration policy-making to sub-national regions. And on Saturday, Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds put forward a plan for a post-Brexit immigration policy based on preferential treatment for EU nationals.

While these contributions proposed different approaches, they were based on similar premises, namely:

  1. That the British public has articulated a clear preference for more robust control of immigration; and that political parties need to recognise and respond to this desire, or risk further erosion of trust and a serious democratic deficit.
  2. That labour migration brings important economic and social benefits, and many sections of the British economy are dependent on migrant labour. Thus a radical restriction of current flows would be neither economically desirable, nor feasible.

Taken together, these two considerations imply a serious tension between popular preferences for restriction, and the economic case for a more liberal approach. In previous blogs, I have shown how this is a classic dilemma for liberal democratic welfare states. So how do the recent proposals seek to resolve the tension?

Both of the proposed approaches involve setting up channels to sustain current inflows of EU immigration, but in a way designed to reassure voters that the UK does effectively control immigration. Indeed, the real challenge lies in this second aspect of the proposals: how far they can convince voters that a post-Brexit Britain immigration policy is meeting public concerns about the scale and impacts of immigration.

The all-party group on social integration suggests two main ways of reassuring the public that the government is serious about controlling immigration. (1) First, the proposal revives a well-established ‘dualist’ approach in post-war UK immigration policy: restricting new entry, whilst promoting the rights and integration of those immigrants already here. The proposals of the all-party group reinvigorate the focus on integration, which has effectively been sidelined by a government keen to encourage return migration in order to meet its net migration target. The paper proposes financial support for local communities and new policies to promote integration as well as introducing more robust language requirements. This is certainly welcome, and could potentially go some way to alleviating local grievances and tensions, at least in the medium to long-term (although injecting resources into integration always runs the risk of exacerbating local grievances about immigrants are receiving preferential treatment).

(2) Second, the proposal seeks to address the tension between public concerns and economic considerations through a differentiated regional approach. It suggests that the devolved administrations and city-regions be given more autonomy in setting thresholds and selecting which types of labour migrants to admit. The rationale for this is that different regions in the UK may have distinct preferences and needs – for example as a function of varying demographic profiles, economic sectors, or public attitudes. The report mentions the Canadian regional points-based system as a possible template for this, but suggests the need for further discussion of the different options.

Such a devolved approach could in principle cater for differential economic and demographic conditions. It is less obvious how far it would address public concerns about control. One key aspect here is the question of retention. Regional systems are unable to limit the onward movement of those granted permanent residence or citizenship (it would be difficult to limit free movement once someone has accrued extended UK residency rights). This has been a feature of the Canadian and Australian regional systems, where studies have shown that there is often substantial onward movement once people are entitled to relocate. Another concern is that a differentiated regional approach may not lead to a reduction in aggregate net migration figures. Indeed, such an approach would need to be accompanied by much more nuanced, regional data on net migration than are currently available. (Or, of course, scrapping the net migration figure entirely…)

On a more symbolic level, it is difficult to see how a UK government could claim to be asserting control while devolving decision-making to regions and cities (possibly run by left-wing administrations!).

There are also questions about how far regions can act as legitimate decision-making units on an issue as salient as immigration. The devolved administrations represent more mature polities, in which many institutions and policies are already autonomous, and the public is accustomed to its (regional) political parties articulating distinct claims and representing the distinct preferences of that geographical unit. This is less clearly the case for the ‘city areas’ identified in the paper (although London may be an exception). Given the asymmetrical nature of federalism in the UK, it’s unclear how a separate regional approach to immigration would be legitimate for most sub-national areas. Indeed, any regional deviation from the (more restrictive) UK-level ‘default’ would need to be carefully deliberated and justified at regional level, in order to avoid the sort of elitist, economically driven policy that is now perceived to have been so problematic at UK level over the past decade. So while this devolved approach may conceivably work for a region like Scotland (and has been mooted here for a decade or more), it’s less clear how it could offer a more general fix across the UK.

So what of the second proposal from Kinnock and Reynolds? Their favoured approach is to address public concerns about immigration control through another form of disaggregation: not differentiating between regions, but between skills levels. They suggest granting preferential treatment to EU nationals, but separating these into two distinct ‘tiers’ (not to be confused with the current 5-tier immigration system). The proposed tier 1 would cover high skilled professions (they name doctors, engineers and teachers as examples). EU nationals with the relevant skills, qualifications, and with a job offer, would be allowed to work in the UK in these occupations. Tier 2 comprises semi and low-skilled workers who would be admitted in accordance with quotas set by the government and social partners, in an arrangement reminiscent of post-war European guest-worker systems.

This approach makes a nod to survey findings that British voters are more accepting of the economic case for high skilled workers than they are for low-skilled. Admitting high skilled professionals is likely to be more politically palatable. But the approach also preserves channels for low-skilled employment which, after all, comprises the bulk of EU immigration. (Even though EU nationals in the UK are on average better qualified than UK ones, many end up taking on less skilled jobs.) Importantly, the authors want to ensure these quotas are not so generous as to displace indigenous workers, or to disincentivise investment in training, or restructuring sectors with low productivity.

Kinnock and Reynolds further suggest that this approach would provide a good basis for negotiating more extended access to the single market – it offers a ‘win-win’ for the UK and EU. Here I am less convinced. If this 2-tier system isn’t a case of the ‘cherry-picking’ so castigated by EU leaders, I don’t know what is. It seems unlikely that the EU would accept this package as remotely equivalent to sustaining rights of free movement. The notion that the stay of highly skilled EU nationals would be permitted only for specified occupations and contingent on a ‘confirmed’ job offer implies a rather restrictive regime – certainly compared to current free movement provisions, and even in comparison to typical points-based systems, under which individuals can enter and seek work based on their occupational qualifications or human capital. It is even less appealing for low-skilled workers, who enter under a quota scheme and are presumably locked into lower-skilled jobs with limited possibilities of mobility.

However, leaving aside the question of how it would play in Brexit negotiations, this second approach may be more promising in terms of winning public support. Basing labour migration policy on hard-nosed economic arguments about skills or occupational shortages may well play better with the public, offering a clear narrative about the rationale for admission. And the onus on selecting which sectors and occupations need immigrant labour would help signal that the government is in control.

Such an occupational/sectoral approach could incorporate a regional dimension – but indirectly, through the sectors it prioritises. It could include more extensive regional lists to reflect distinct labour needs in different parts of the country. And, as suggested in the report, it could revive something like the Fresh Talent initiative that would allow graduates of UK universities to work in the UK once their studies are finished – an approach that again can work well for regions and cities hosting large numbers of students.

Indeed, I suspect this sort of approach may well emerge as the preferred framework for post-Brexit immigration policy: a system that gives preferential treatment to EU nationals in a way that largely preserves current flows; while allowing more leverage in identifying sectors or occupations in need of labour. Whether or not it constitutes much of a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations is more doubtful. But such preferential treatment could be assist the conclusion of bilateral arrangements with other EU member states – for example ensuring skilled UK nationals can also work in Munich, or that UK pensioners can still spend their retirement years in the Costa del Sol.

In short, both reports contain very useful ideas. We need a revived focus on integration and enhanced support for local areas. We should further explore options for devolved arrangements – although I am doubtful how far these would be politically viable beyond the case of Scotland. And we need to consider how best to sustain current EU mobility in a way that reassures the public that the UK is managing immigration. It won’t be enough to keep us in the single market. But the alternative would be an unmanaged approach that fails to address local pressures and integration challenges, and that probably ends up admitting high numbers of immigrants without a clear narrative about choice and control. A bit like the current approach, then, but with far higher levels of disaffection on the part of disillusioned Brexit voters.

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