A more collaborative immigration policy?

February 1, 2017   By Abigail Gilbert, Researcher, NLGN

For many years national politicians have avoided the question of ‘British Identity’ as connected to a set of values or principles. Instead, ‘we’ have known ourselves through economic terms, comparative to other nations, on the basis of our financial prosperity and business prowess. Yet this narrative or story of who we are clearly does not ring true to many parts of the UK.

Because they are too large and complex to be experienced directly, the communities which nation states claim to represent are always imagined. The question, then, is how and to what ends this imagination is captured and collectively enlivened and, further, whether and how it is useful to shape a sense of belonging and place to achieve the goals of a strong civic democracy.

Many feel that Brexit was as much a vote against Westminster as against Brussels, with those outside of London feeling long forgotten and left behind due to a lack of investment in skills, the decline of industry, and a dissatisfaction with agricultural development policy, namely the Common Agricultural Policy. Their reasoning is not inherently xenophobic – but perhaps understandably arises through compounding feelings of resentment when legitimately more skilled migrant workers, or those willing to work for lower salaries, take advantage of increasingly scarce employment opportunities. In the absence of any opportunity to meaningfully engage with central government about these structural problems people were arguably left with no other option but to take an ‘us first’ perspective.

This creates a very complicated landscape for future migration policy. As we heard at our discussion event on Brexit last week, some London Boroughs are responding to Brexit by lobbying for a London Working Visa. While this may seem appealing precisely because there was such a strong remain vote in the capital, it is important that decisions taken from this point forward don’t exacerbate existing inequalities across the country – in skill flow, accessibility of cultural capital and interchange, or most importantly, the power people have to be able to extend a hand to invite others to become part of the body politic.

Globally there is a trend towards more local, co-produced immigration policy: with criteria and limits developed in collaboration between central government and the nations constituent regions. In 1996, the US devolved some aspects of federal welfare for migrants to individual states. While such schemes are often expected to result in a ‘race to the bottom’, with people more inclined to increase eligibility criteria rather than broaden them, almost all states responded with more generous systems for ‘aliens’. Canada and Australia both run their migrant benefits systems cooperatively with local provinces – enabling them to make special offers to individuals with locally required skill sets.

City regions may explore this because they are looking to develop their reputation as competitors in an increasingly urbanised global economy, because they have more contextualised and responsive knowledge of their communities than central government, and because they have a closer understanding of labour market needs. As we heard from Cornwall, two thirds of their hospitality, farming and health workers come from abroad.

But the greatest potential of more cooperative immigration policies is that they could be delivered with a strong focus on public consultation, allowing people to better understand economic realities, and discuss their personal struggles and grievances within a democratic forum.

Trust extends both ways. As debates about devolved and cooperative immigration policies develop, it is important that Westminster allows all communities – not just the privileged few – to build the so-called ‘shared society’ from the bottom up.

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