New Ideas, Old Politics and Real Progress

It wasn’t déjà vu when I turned on the radio on Sunday morning to hear Ed Miliband presenting Labour’s “new” immigration policies: more the discomfort of hearing discordant, distorted versions of new ideas sold short.
Over the past month, I’ve spent time talking to colleagues and friends – including at leading Labour-allied think-tank IPPR – about how to develop more positive migration policies.  I believe this will happen not by talking in broad national brush-strokes, but through carefully designing concrete migration policies that could contribute to the pursuit of some of the fundamental goals of progressive politics: social mobility, global development, equality of opportunity. 
Say, for instance, by linking the technology sector’s access to the international labour market with new training initiatives boroughs like Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington, where Tech City is booming but software engineers work alongside entrenched deprivation.  In fact, something very similar to the policy announced by Miliband yesterday, which will require large companies to fund an apprenticeship for every highly-skilled migrant they hire within the existing quota regime. Except with Labour the goals have been inverted: carrot has been turned into stick. 
Ideas of course are public property, best improved through discussion and debate. Yet it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in playing the old games, pursuing power and popular appeal, what’s been lost is the chance to make a real contribution to progressive politics.  Far from a bold new idea, this is still the empty politics of national numbers: it’s no challenge to the idea that migration, even if it is sometimes a necessary evil, is always a problem, not a solution.  But it’s precisely this failure of imagination which helps to explain why the policy is being dismissed just 72 hours after its unveiling.
Critics have pointed out that framing this initiative in terms of “British apprenticeships” is illegal: a lesson not learnt after Gordon Brown’s previous empty promises of “British jobs for British workers”.   The problem lies in framing immigration – and employment – in these national terms. What’s really needed is new opportunities for social mobility, especially in deprived areas. Scale back from the blanket imposition of a national rule; focus instead on building local programmes that work with specific local businesses to respond to the needs of local communities. Then you begin to have apprenticeships that make a real and concrete contribution to the progressive politics of social mobility, not the narrow politics of nationalism.
Businesses have also labelled the idea ‘unworkable’. It’s easy to see why. This policy has ostensibly been linked to the publication of the Husbands report on vocational skills training, but offers no real remedy for the problems with apprenticeship that the report identifies: too many low-quality, low-paid schemes that don’t lead to long-term employment. The crude politics of “one migrant, one apprentice” also pay scant attention to questions of labour substitutability or training requirements: it’s a far cry from the “employer-led” apprentice drive the Husband report urges.  Instead, by turning such commitments into obligations, apprenticeships risk becoming empty gestures, bureaucratic hoops. 
To unworkable should be added unhelpful. By keeping the quota cap in place, and focusing on large companies (many of whom already run apprenticeship schemes) it’s simply not clear how this proposal will add 125,000 additional apprenticeships over five years (let alone the jobs to follow). The policy effectively ignores the migration needs of the small and medium sized businesses, like those that are driving London’s start-up boom. It’s these businesses that often don’t have the capacity to negotiate the opaque rules governing visa sponsorship, but which –when the time is right for expansion – could play a real role in training up new, local software engineers on a small scale, in a dynamic high-wage industry that, with a culture of on-the-job training, is ideally placed to make apprenticeships meaningful. 
The Tech Stars apprenticeship scheme has just launched and may provide a model for just such a scheme, though for the moment it’s focusing on IT support and marketing rather than areas of real computing skill shortage. But technology start-ups are unlikely to fully invest in such training when so much of their time is spent searching for the qualified engineers they need now (and who usually aren’t British when they find them).  Businesses can’t train the next generation if they’re no longer solvent. Allowing small and medium sized companies who participate in recognised apprenticeship schemes an exemption from existing highly-skilled visa quotas could help both to ease the talent crunch that holds many back and encourage their investment in hands-on training.
Yet the most damning charge is that this new Labour policy amounts to nothing more than an “apprentice tax”. It’s also a tax on migration.  There’s no talk of lifting the quota, simplifying the bureaucracy and costs involved in hiring foreign workers, or rethinking the logic driving the push down on immigration. Apprenticeships are simply presented as another hurdle. And this is what really needs to change. We need to start seeing migration not as a problem, but first as an on-going reality – and then as an opportunity.

With some creative thinking, migration could become a lever used to persuade a whole range of actors – from technology companies to farmers to trade unions – to fully commit to a bold socially progressive political agenda, by aligning their private economic interests with public progress towards a more equal and fairer society. But this can only be done by opening up migration – slowly and strategically – not by closing it down. That’s why this is a missed opportunity. Successful 21st century governance requires innovation, and we undoubtedly need new ideas when it comes immigration policy. Yet instead it seems we’re just going to be offered the same old politics: numbers and nationalism on a road to nowhere.

    One Comment on “New Ideas, Old Politics and Real Progress

    1. You can have as much immigration as you like Ms Long – all you have to do is get democratic approval from the electorate.

      It’s called democracy.

      No democratic consent and incoming migrants and their descendants and dependents have no status here, no matter how much they bang on about their “rights”.

      And is it not laughable that you refer to “boroughs like Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington” – boroughs that are currently decanting (to use a New Labour word) their established populations to make way for more profitable labour – I suggest you take a look at what has happened to the Woodberry Down in estate before rabitting on about things you obviously have no first hand knowledge of.

      And one final point – have you not stopped to ask WHY there is the shortage of engineers you refer to in a country that spends £19 billion a year on education. Lazy inadequate unionised teachers is the reason.