A serious migration – reacting to the UKIP manifesto

15 April 2015

The 2015 UK Independence Party manifesto launch marks something of a watershed for the party.  Their far longer, far more esoteric 2010 manifesto is roundly dismissed by Nigel Farage as “drivel”, and long gone are policies such as making London Underground’s Circle line circular again, and enforcing a dress code for taxi drivers.

This is a party seeking to get serious about the two core issues in its policy stable that, according to most reliable polling, are the barometers of its continuing appeal to its core vote – Europe and immigration.  But how serious are their proposals?

On Europe, UKIP has to steer a tricky course.  Although the party’s populist “grand narrative” of EU waste and profligacy identifies the EU as the source of the various ills it ascribes to excessive migration, it has now to contend with broadly unified business opinion that views the possibility of a UK exit from the EU with scepticism, and in some quarters, dismay.  The manifesto pledges an immediate referendum and that if this is won (UKIP commit to backing an exit vote), that the UK would be able to leave within two years.  This policy alone is not markedly different from their 2010 commitment.

On immigration, UKIP have placed great stock in seeking to emulate the Australian “points style” migration system.  The UK of course already operates a variant of a points based system as do most advanced economies; what is quantitatively different is the party’s commitment to extend this system to European migrants to the UK, and its aspiration in terms of numbers.  The new manifesto commits to a range of “normality” of between 20,000 and 50,000 net migrants per year, down from the current 300,000, managed in part via a cap on visas issued.  The party is mindful of the coalition’s difficulties in achieving pre-2010 quantified targets on numbers.  This is less sharp than the 50,000 cap pledge UKIP made in 2010, but remains a bold ambition.  

Outside these core vote areas, UKIP makes pledges across many areas of policy – notably raising defence spending, cutting business rates and to “fully funding” social care.  UKIP has also now entered the more serious competition of seeking independent validation of its various spending commitments.

Populist rhetoric aside, the defence spending commitments, signalling infrastructure and operational investments equivalent to 2% of GDP p/a, plus post-service employment commitments for Armed Forces personnel, perhaps signal a growing appreciation of the employment, skills and labour market dynamics affecting particular sectors of employment in the UK.  The same might be said of the party’s emerging ideas on offender learning, a big area of work for NIACE over the years, where UKIP now propose specifically to pay qualified prisoners to teach basic skills to other prisoners.

These commitments aside, many of the other UKIP education and skills commitments – such as on apprenticeships for 14 year olds, undergraduates and tuition fees, and on schools – as with many of the other main parties, remains in our view too heavy in emphasis on the needs of young people alone, as opposed to the needs and priorities for adult skills and employment across the working age population.

The crux of our challenge to UKIP in discussions with the party will be around the appreciation of a flexible system for managing migration that reflects the true net benefits migration brings to the UK economy, alongside the responsibilities of migrants to play a full and productive role in UK society, and the role for lifelong learning and in work progression as the backdrop to sustainable and equitable economic growth.

Our recent policy solutions paper on migration set out this challenge in full, calling for:
•    changes to the benefit system to require everyone in a household in receipt of benefits with an English language need to learn English;
•    significant expansion in the number of English classes, refocusing current public investment on entry levels and introducing loans for learning beyond this;
•    greater power for local areas to promote integration and support local opportunity; and
•    changes to the immigration cap so more highly skilled people can stay and work in the UK.

Alongside this, we are certain UKIP will welcome a robust debate on our ideas on low pay and career progression, also published in the last month, in the context of their macroeconomic commitments in the manifesto.  We are now looking forward to a good debate with UKIP and the other parties after the general election to try to make the positive and economically essential aspects of this vision a reality.