Theme: Political Economy | Content Type: Digested Read

The divisions and concessions behind Conservative immigration policy

Erica Consterdine

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| 6 mins read

Immigration policy under Conservative rule over the last decade has been underpinned by a seemingly simple mandate to reduce immigration. Yet, ideologically the Conservatives have long been split on immigration, caught between its neoliberal New Right that champions free markets, and its social conservatism, which immigration is said to threaten.

Immigration is an ideologically divisive issue for the centre-right because part of its raison d’être is to defend the status quo that immigration is said to challenge. The paternalistic, nationalist, social conservatism of the centre-right lends itself comfortably to a restrictive immigration policy. Yet, at the same time, the economically libertarian ideological wing of the centre-right complicates any simple, restrictive immigration policy. Broadly, business interests favour immigration because it allows for a more flexible labour market based on low wage labour.

Appealing to the social right of its voter base, since 2010 immigration policy has been doggedly restrictive. Yet, lobbying channelled through bureaucratic politics has led to subtle, but important, concessions to appease business interests. The Conservative administrations have legitimised these concessions by making distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants.

In the 2010s, lobbying strategies predominantly consisted of insider lobbying through two key venues: government departments and the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). However, all that has changed post-Brexit. With significant labour market shortages induced by new post-Brexit immigration system and heightened by the pandemic, employers are ‘going public’ with their opposition, placing significant pressure on the Conservatives to perform a policy reversal.

Conservatism, immigration and organised interests

Insider interest groups in Britain who have influence over government include the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Institute of Directors (IoD), who all generally prefer to conduct the majority of their lobbying via insider tactics. Lobbyists often use the exchange of data and information as a bargaining tool.

A key administrative lobbying strategy is internal bargaining within the state—otherwise known as bureaucratic politics. It can be a strategy to bypass the government's collective will, by channelling interests through departmental remits.

To date, the Conservatives have prioritised populist demands over private interests regarding immigration. Yet, subtle but important concessions have been made to business, reflected in their definition of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ migrants.

Net migration pledge

It all started with a seemingly simple pledge by the Conservative-lead Coalition government —to reduce net migration ‘from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands’. What followed were major curtailments for students and vast reductions to labour immigration.

Meanwhile, concessions to business interests were evident, manifested through the contradictory, even conflicting, departmental agendas of the Home Office and the Department for Business, Industry and Skills (BIS). The greatest was that intra-company transfers (ICTs) would be exempt from the annual limit on T2 visas. As a result of consultation responses and lobbying through BIS, the sponsorship system of the points-based system (PBS) also underwent significant changes to favour T2 sponsors and corporations.

Rhetorically, the lobbying efforts of business interests softened the Conservatives’ discourse on immigration, with consistent reassurances that business activity would not be negatively affected.

The Conservatives mediated their ideological split by distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants based on their economic worthiness; those who brought capital and skills versus low-paid ‘bad’ migrants.

Get Brexit done

In 2016, Britain’s vote to leave the EU sent shockwaves through the Conservative Party.Any residual trace of economic liberalism had now given way to populism; politics, not economics, would determine the Brexit deal.

Concessions to business in the eventual post-Brexit immigration system were evident, but only to specific high-paid sectors. Business interests went public with their opposition. Seeing limited political room for concessions, employers changed tactics and redoubled efforts into lobbying with evidence to influence policy design through the MAC. While the government can ignore the MAC's recommendations, it is politically difficult to justify doing so.

The MAC’s recommendations on EEA migration included no change to the tier system, no preferential access for EU migrants, no low-skilled sector specific schemes (except in agriculture), a less restrictive regime for higher-skilled workers than lower-skilled workers, and despite employer lobbying, no changes to the salary threshold for T2 visas. The report was met with much opposition from the business sector, but in its 2018 White Paper the government accepted the majority of the MAC's recommendations.

The Points Based System

More recently, Boris Johnson’s Australian-style Points Based System (PBS) has allowed him to appease both public and business concerns by simultaneously suggesting the system promotes both control and a liberal policy.

The MAC’s January 2020 report on a new PBS were broadly congruent with employer responses – employers across all sectors had lobbied with evidence. But on the key issue –lowering the salary threshold – the government ignored the MAC’s recommendation. Ultimately, the end product of the PBS had strong parallels with the recommendations submitted by the major employer associations—CBI, FSB, BCC.

Yet, while concessions have been made to business demands, most employers fiercely oppose the new immigration system, especially in low-paid sectors where the current system offers limited avenues for legal migration.

The increase of going public with opposition to government policy is placing significant pressure on the Conservatives to perform a policy reversal. At the same time, public concerns over immigration are at an historic low, so the populist strategy may not be an electorally winning one in the future. A change in policy may follow then, and the politics of immigration in the near future may look starkly different.

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