In Tony Blair’s recent intervention on Brexit, I kept expecting to read “we need to be tough on immigration, and tough on the causes of immigration”. For those who do not know, when he was Shadow Home Secretary in 1993, Tony Blair came up with the slogan: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. It was a brilliant piece of political spin. The public had the perception that the Conservatives were tougher than Labour in dealing with crime. What Blair did with this slogan was to counterattack by suggesting that the Conservatives might be tough in the sense of locking people up, but maybe a smarter strategy would be to go for the causes rather than just the symptoms of the problem.
He didn’t say that about immigration. But I wish some of those who argue that we need to restrict immigration by more would say something like: “Rather than control immigration, we should do something about the causes of immigration”. There currently seems to be a presumption that if you decide immigration is too high, you automatically argue for some form of direct immigration controls and numerical targets to guide these controls. That does not follow. Indeed you could argue that it should not follow. Having some bureaucrat decide whether a firm should or should not be able to employ someone from overseas is likely to be arbitrary and inefficient. Having a points system to do the same risks being a blunt instrument that leads to many bad individual outcomes
You would think, in particular, that those politicians that extol the virtues of a free and flexible labour markets, and argue that we need to reduce red tape for UK business, would push this line, and argue for indirect rather than direct control of immigration..But there may be a good political reason why they do not. One of the political advantages of direct controls is that they hide the costs to firms of those controls.
Suppose, for the sake of argument (and against the evidence), that we agreed that immigration imposed some form of cost on society. The obvious solution, for an economist, would be to impose a tax on firms that employed immigrants. Indeed Theresa May floated such an idea in early 2016. But that immediately makes it clear to the public that controlling immigration has costs, and allows the business sector to lobby hard against this tax. A much milder idea of ‘naming and shaming’ firms that employed immigrants was floated at the last Conservative party conference, but was quickly dropped for similar reasons. As Brexit polls showed, many people only favour immigration controls when they think there will be no cost to them personally. Even government ministers behave in a similar way. The moment you make it clear that reducing immigration will harm business, support falls.
While this might be a concern for those who want to use immigration as a political weapon (to deflect attention from the consequence of austerity, for example), it should not be for others (in the Labour party, for example) who simply want to appease public opinion. Above all else, focusing on the causes of immigration rather than direct controls should produce a much more honest public debate.