Is the progressive case for migration truly progressive?

More migrants entering the UK does not equal a more progressive attitude to migration. Those who make the case for a fairer migration policy would do well to question their own position.


Ever since the 1960s, progressives have been bemoaning the drift towards what we have seen as ever more restrictive and reactionary immigration policies. We have asked ourselves endlessly how we can put across the progressive case for migration in a more effective way. But these discussions are always based on the assumption that our case is truly progressive – an assumption I think we need to question.  By ‘unpacking’ our case we might find that along with some cherished possessions, there are a few things in there which have been weighing us down and which we would do well to junk.


Part of the reason for this relatively unquestioning attitude to the justice of our arguments is the very fact that they have proved so unpopular. There is nothing that convinces a progressive more that they are in the right than finding that most people disagree with them. A particularly unfortunate element of this syndrome in relation to migration is a tendency to characterise our opponents as nasty, stupid and backward. By so doing, we give ourselves license to either patronise or ignore them.  But it is not the case that the classic progressive view on migration – which I will summarise below – is disputed only by extremists, such as the BNP.  In fact, as must now be obvious to us, the vast majority of mainstream public opinion does not see the logic or the ethics of our case.  Of course, there are sometimes strong arguments for ‘drawing a line’ on an important issue and standing up for what you believe to be right even if you are standing out against prevailing orthodoxy. But the other way to approach this problem is to question your own position. 


So, how might we summarise the classic progressive position on migration?  In its modern form it was forged in anti-racist struggles of the sixties and seventies, so a key component is that immigration policy should not discriminate on the basis of race – and an assumption that it invariably does.  This assumption in turn leads to a position that restricting immigration flows is inherently wrong – or at least to be viewed with suspicion – because restrictions, whatever the government of the day might say, are not fundamentally aimed at controlling numbers of people, but types – and that is offensive. 


Moreover, the progressive world view is essentially internationalist in spirit and has little truck with any sort of nationalist sentiment.  In this spirit, migration is viewed as a manifestation of our common global humanity and as such a good in itself. This position is further strengthened by the fact that a large – or at least visible – component of immigration to the UK has been made up of migrants from the developing world, moving to escape poverty, vulnerability and oppression - circumstances which at least in part can be attributed to the legacies of colonialism, to on-going economic and trade policies and to Western military interventions. In this context, immigration from the developing world (which all the evidence shows greatly benefits migrants themselves) is viewed as a way of assuaging post-colonial guilt and compensating for global injustice.


Progressives of course also argue ( with strong evidence at the macro-level to back them up) -  see Christian Dustman and Ian Preston Is Immigration Good or Bad for the Economy?, that migration brings economic benefits to destination countries.  In some cases, these are measurable though not uncontested; in others, such as the dynamic effects and the injection of entrepreneurial spirit, less so – though they are intuitively persuasive.  Moreover, progressives tend, simply, to like the change and diversity that immigration brings. A strong part of the self-identification of a progressive is formed in opposition to the conservative celebration of tradition and stability - and solidarity with new communities is one way of manifesting this world view. A final component worth mentioning is that not all migrants to the UK have enjoyed great success here. Some migrant communities regularly feature as among the most deprived and excluded in our society, so supporting these communities in their struggle for social justice comes naturally to those with progressive sympathies. 


On the face of it, the case set out above has a strong appeal. However, its failure to win traction with the wider public should at least give us pause for thought.  I don’t think that progressive arguments are doomed to be unpopular, so why is our case doing so badly?  My argument is that there are elements of it which are, in fact, not very progressive at all. In framing my argument I take three principles which ippr thinks are central to progressive values: fairness, democracy and sustainability. In a nutshell, a progressive view on migration needs to be: fair to both migrants and host communities; consistent with democratic norms, but also based on majority consent; and sustainable in the long run.


Let me start with the question of restricting immigration flows. The concern that such restrictions target particular nationalities unfairly is perfectly reasonable of course – particularly if race comes into the equation in any way. But it does not follow that restrictions per se are inherently wrong, and it is certainly not the case that totally free flows are more progressive than controlled ones. For migration to benefit migrants properly the receiving state should be able provide the economic opportunities, the infrastructure support and the integration policies necessary to help people to adjust to life and to thrive in a new country.  If large numbers of migrants are entering in an uncontrolled and unplanned way this is impossible. So while controls restrict entry, they help to ensure that the migrants who are allowed in are treated decently and can make the most of their migration experience. 


Moreover, a controlled approach ensures that the impacts of migration inflows can be managed most fairly for the benefit of host communities.  A real blind spot in the progressive case is this question of negative impacts from migration, particularly in more deprived areas.  At its worst, this can amount to complete denial that migration brings anything other than benefits. But it is self-evidently the case that large numbers of migrants arriving in some areas, particularly if it happens very rapidly, can have serious downsides. An obvious problem is that the provision of infrastructure and services lags behind the increase in the population.  The government now tries to mitigate this through its Migrant Impacts Fund. But the wider lesson is surely obvious: if a state is controlling inflows it is much better placed to plan and provide for new populations. That means that everyone in a community (in-comers and long term residents) gets the support and services they need – surely what any progressive would want to see.


The fact that managed migration necessarily means keeping many people out is self-evident.  Managed migration does in effect ‘ration’ migration opportunities, which is hard on those excluded.  But what, in the real world, is the alternative?  Porous borders and poorly managed immigration systems may allow for higher levels of migration, but they do not deliver complete fairness – or anything like. In many ways, they create a more competitive, and ruthless world for would-be migrants. To take an obvious example; while progressives may want to defend irregular migrants as individuals, we surely don’t seek to defend irregularity itself, with all that follows from it? Some argue that irregularity only exists because immigration systems ‘create’ it. But the logic of this argument leads us to anarchy not justice – because anything approaching ‘open borders’ would cause chaos and massive destabilisation –within both developed and developing economies. 


There is in truth nothing progressive at all in a ‘laissez faire’ approach to migration which relies for its logic on an extreme neo-liberal position that people should fight ‘dog eat dog’ for economic opportunities wherever they can find them in an unregulated global economy. A new fairer world economic order is not going to be built on this approach. Neither is it persuasive to take the line that because developed, former imperialist powers like the UK have helped to create such an unjust world, mass migration would solve the problem. Research by ippr 'Development on the move' to be published in May, shows that migration has largely beneficial development impacts, but the report is quite clear that it does not amount to a development strategy. It is through the pursuit of trade justice, improved governance and economic redistribution that a fairer world will be achieved, not through huge disorganised movements of people.


This of course is not to argue for ‘fortress’ type policies to keep the ‘hordes’ from our shores. Indeed I would argue that in some areas – such as low skilled migration from outside the EU – we should be opening some managed, circular routes for migration into this country. But I also think it is perfectly fair to suggest that such schemes should be demonstrably economically beneficial for the UK. Not the least of the reasons for doing so is that our concern as progressives to provide opportunities for migrants should not outweigh our responsibility for citizens and long-term residents.  A central concern of progressives should be that those most disadvantaged in a society are not further harmed by any policies pursued by the state.  While evidence in this area is very thin, it is important not to dismiss the widely held perception that migration helps the rich, but hurts the poor.  At the very least, progressives need to be sure that our policy proposals on migration are not increasing inequality and diminishing economic opportunities for already resident populations.


So, to sum up, my argument is that just because migration is very often a ‘good thing’ doesn’t mean that more of it is necessarily better. Indeed for it to be a good thing, it needs to take place in circumstances in which the country of origin and country of destination, the migrants and long term residents, all have a shared interest and enjoy shared benefits.  Much the best way to achieve this is to put in place a well managed and controlled migration system based on transparent criteria for entry, fairly applied. This might mean lower numbers of migrants coming in the future, but why is that a problem for progressives? In the end, more migrants do not equal a more progressive attitude to migration – indeed it is just this fuzzy logic which has weakened our case in recent years.








About the author

Tim Finch is the organiser of the festival of Englishness and IPPR’s director of Communications. His novel ‘The House of Journalists’ was published by Jonathan Cape in August.