It’s now three years since the Conservative Party pledged to reduce net migration, so a good time to take stock of how they’ve been doing. UCL recently published a useful report exposing the various problems with this target: its questionable objective (why reduce overall population size, when the crucial issue is the social and economic impact of different types of migration?); and the various problems with realizing the target. Governments face major constraints to controlling immigration, and the easiest route for reducing numbers has been to cut off access to high-skilled workers and foreign students from non-EEA countries – both highly beneficial to the UK economy. A case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Given these fairly fundamental short-comings, what explains the lure of this type of populist “stretch” target?
Targets in immigration policy pre-date the current government: Labour introduced a series of targets in the 2000s as part of its Public Service Agreements. Under Labour, the focus was on reducing asylum seekers and increasing removals. As with the current Coalition target, the targets adopted were “stretch” targets, in that they committed the Home Office to ambitious goals. And, as with the Tories’ net migration target, it was highly questionable whether or not the Home Office was capable of delivering these goals. As in the case of the Coalition target, the adoption of these targets had an important symbolic role, signaling a strong commitment to migration control. As it turned out, Labour did achieve its target on asylum numbers, though probably more by chance than design – declining asylum applications in the mid-2000s was part of a Europe-wide trend, not an outcome of UK policy. The government consistently missed its targets on removals.
So why take the risk? Why would a government set itself ambitious targets that it must know are unfeasible, and on which it will be held to account? Surely it’s just seeking out punishment. The answer, as ever, must lie in the highly politicised – and populist – nature of immigration policy. Labour took a gamble with asylum and removals targets to mollify a critical media and opposition, attempting to buy credibility through locking itself in to stretch targets. The Conservatives did so to gain political capital through adopting a very simple, populist message that would distinguish it from “soft touch” Labour. Again and again, the short-term dividends seem to outweigh the longer-term risks to credibility (or economic interest, in the case of Tory targets). It’s a very skewed form of political rationality.
Whatever the shortcomings, it looks as if we’re stuck with immigration targets for the foreseeable future. The quantification and monitoring of performance has become entrenched within public sector organisations. And in the area of immigration policy, it is also becoming the standard – even required – means by which political parties articulate objectives and vouchsafe their delivery.