Scholars have long identified a so-called ‘liberal constraint’ on immigration policy. The argument goes as follow. Public opinion tends to favour restrictive policies, and politicians know they stand to lose votes by permitting large-scale immigration. Yet a number of ‘liberal constraints’ kick in, which limit how restrictive they can really be. International human rights and refugee law – often codified in national constitutions and legislation – obliges them to admit people for humanitarian reasons. For EU or EEA countries, treaty obligations mean they have to allow the nationals of member states access to their labour markets. Concerns about inter-ethnic or ‘race’ relations often pull them back from blatantly discriminatory measures that might stoke domestic tensions. And clearly, liberal states have a strong interest in securing foreign labour to plug gaps in labour supply, or to bring in skills and experience that enhance productivity. Put all these together, and it becomes much, much harder to deliver promises to reduce immigration.
Now the liberal constraint hasn’t stopped governments from employing highly restrictive rhetoric on immigration. Indeed, a classic way of reconciling hostile public opinion with liberal constraints is to separate rhetoric from practice: to preach restriction, while covertly tolerating or encouraging immigration. Such covert encouragement can involve introducing low profile administrative arrangements for entry of certain groups, e.g. through intra-company transfers, or seasonal worker schemes, or posted workers. Or it can involve tolerating substantial numbers of undocumented foreign workers who are periodically ‘regularised’ through amnesties. Most European governments have tried one or more of these strategies.
But this decoupling of rhetoric and practice is less easy when you have a migration target. A quantified target obviously means the level of migration – or at least regular migration – is closely measured and scrutinised by your critics.
So this the position the Conservative Party now finds itself in. Desperately keen to meet public demands for restriction; but constrained in doing so by the liberal constraint. There’s only so far it can clamp down on asylum and family migration, and only so far it wants to restrict high-skilled and student migration. And of course, it can’t limit EEA mobility while it remains an EU member. What’s worse, it now has UKIP breathing down its neck, blissfully heedless of any liberal constraint, in true populist, opposition party style.
What can be done?
First, it’s worth stressing that the last Labour government was in exactly the same position towards the end of its administration. After Labour’s initial period of liberalising migration policy in 2002-4, in the latter half of the 2000s the Home Office attempted to limit labour migration in exactly the same way as the Tories have done: closing non-EEA low-skilled routes; cracking down on abuse of the student route; and limiting non-EEA labour migration to a high-skilled categories. If we take away the Tories’ net migration target – which we know now is largely symbolic – the two main UK parties have very little standing between them on immigration policy.
Second, it should be clear by now that neither party would be able to deliver policies that are more restrictive than those currently pursued by Theresa May. Because of the liberal constraint, any responsible, liberal, business-friendly party will be hard pressed to find ways of further limiting legal immigration. (Short of leaving the EU, that is.) This fact has been blatantly exposed now, thanks to the net migration target: the target has driven home the impossibility of any mainstream party pursuing a more draconian approach.
So rather than being a sitting duck to UKIP, why not open up a more honest debate about immigration? Why don’t the main political parties – Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, perhaps the SNP too – set up a cross-party commission to thoroughly explore and debate immigration? The Germans did it in 2001, with their influential Immigration Commission, chaired by the moderate CDU politician Rita Suessmuth. The Commission brought together figures from across the political spectrum, trade union and employers, immigrant and religious groups, to deliberate various aspects of immigration: the economic arguments for different kinds of immigration; its social and cultural impacts; challenges of integration and multi-culturalism; and the human rights and humanitarian norms and considerations underpinning asylum and family migration. It was a painful and often fraught process. But the Germans appear have a much more healthy public debate on immigration now, and a more sensible and realistic discussion between the main political parties. If only we could do something similar here.
The net migration target is widely reviled. But maybe its failure has served a useful function: exposing the fact that no mainstream party – no matter how resolved – can or should radically reduce immigration. Now we’ve realised that, the next step has to be to open up a discussion on how we try to manage immigration in a way that balances liberal values and goals with public concerns about its impacts.