Since Boris Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street, political attention has been focused on the likelihood of ‘No Deal’, Cabinet reshuffles, and big spending pledges on public services (including 20,000 new police officers).
However, on day two of his premiership the new prime minister also offered some signs of a new approach to immigration. As Home Secretary, Theresa May staked her reputation on a hardline approach towards those wishing to move to the United Kingdom. Boris looks to be signalling that he will take a different tack.
Having already scrapped the net migration target, Johnson reiterated his desire to offer a new unilateral guarantee for EU citizens already resident in Britain, and assured the House that the Home Office is continuing to review the ban on asylum seekers working if their claims have not been processed within six months.
Similarly – and perhaps surprisingly, given the make-up of his cabinet – the new prime minister kept open the prospect of an amnesty for illegal immigrants within the UK, a resurfaced idea from his time at City Hall. Nor is this seemingly more liberal approach to immigration necessarily contradicted by the commitment to an ‘Australian-style points based system’ – which, as others have pointed out, could mean more or less anything in policy terms.
Adopting a liberal agenda on immigration would be an important positive step, and with any luck would signify a recognition of the failure of May’s hardline approach at the highest levels of government .
Of course, another failure of the May years was in tackling those ‘burning injustices’ she famously identified on the steps of Downing Street. Here, too, Johnson appears to be cutting his own path. One of the most widely discussed injustices of recent years is that of spatial inequality – often described in political shorthand as the problem of ‘left behind towns’. The new PM seems to be keenly aware of this pressing issue, and hoping to deliver where may could not.
“[My job] is to be prime minister of the whole United Kingdom, and that means uniting our country, answering at last the plea of the forgotten people and the left-behind towns, by physically and literally renewing the ties that bind us together.”
Phrases like ‘forgotten people’ and ‘left-behind towns’ are not enormously helpful – the simplistic negativity feels offensive to many. And, as May found, there is a large gap between identifying a problem and taking the steps needed to address it. However, there is an important issue here: that pure economic deprivation is not the only issue at play. In addition there is a sense of dislocation and a lack of opportunity.
Though the link is not often drawn, there is a close association between geographic isolation from opportunity and opposition to migration, especially along economic lines (such as a fear of immigrants ‘stealing’ jobs). This makes intuitive sense – such areas receive fewer migrants, and do not benefit from the rich advantages (both cultural and financial) that they bring. Quoting the estimated £4.7 billion that EU migrants contribute annually to the Treasury does little to counter anti-immigrant rhetoric in areas where those financial benefits are not felt, and where local people are denied the agency to transform their communities by themselves. The fact that polling for Global Future reveals that 51% of the public agree that whilst immigration has been beneficial to some parts of the UK, those benefits have not accrued to the areas in which they live, makes this point all the more stark.
How then to answer the close link between spatial inequality and cohesion? Residents of towns are right to be suspicious of ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions that aim to address years of underinvestment in a single stroke. However, the proposals set out in our recent paper, The Migration Dividend Fund, offer a place to start.
In the paper, we advocate a plan which could fit comfortably within Boris’ apparent desire to move towards a more positive – and more sensible – approach to immigration, whilst addressing the real issues behind spatial inequality in the UK. The Migration Dividend Fund would be a multibillion pound plan to revolutionise skills, opportunity and investment in towns and small cities throughout the UK. It would provide long-term investment for our communities, and would be administered by local people, empowering them to transform the towns they know best. Critically, the annual value of the fund would be tied to the net fiscal contributions of EU migrants to the Exchequer – currently £4.7bn a year – spreading the benefits of migration and rendering them visible for all, rather than simply for those in cities.
Positive language around immigration coupled with a commitment to improving the outcomes of towns should be welcomed, provided they are backed up with the policy to turn aspiration into reality. Innovative solutions on towns and migration could be brought together through a radical plan to spread the benefits of immigration whilst giving tangible form to that dividend in communities that need economic support.
It is fair to say the prime minister has much in his in-tray. But if he is to make a success of building the positive future he describes, he will need more than optimistic language. Instead, he needs a bold plan and serious policies to tackle the real problems facing modern Britain. Adopting the Migration Dividend Fund would be a big step in the right direction.