Why migration policy is never right


My old friends at ippr have a report out today on immigration. In typical ippr style the work is balanced, evidence based and progressively inclined. It comes to the conclusion that there is no net impact on the existing workforce as a result of immigration. However, all the evidence upon which the project was based comes from before the recession, so I fear it won’t cut much mustard with the kind of people who have been protesting against the hiring of foreign workers.

Coincidentally, a former ippr colleague of mine, who now works for the US based Migration Policy Institute has asked me, ahead of a seminar they are hosting in London next month, to lay out a cultural theory approach to migration policy.

I’m not sure I am entirely equipped for the job (either in terms of expertise in migration or cultural theory) but here goes:

Migration policy is tough because it has to deal with powerful forces and perspectives along each of the three active paradigms of cultural theory: individualism, egalitarianism and hierarchy.

Hierarchists (by which in this case we generally mean Government agencies) want a migration policy which is orderly and leads to predictable and manageable outcomes. Moreover, they feel a great deal of pressure to show that they can engineer and deliver such a policy. This helps to explain why Governments not only tend to talk tough on migration but also consistently exaggerate their control over migration and its outcomes. The state’s frailty in the face of the uncontrollability and complexity of migration threatens to undermine its credibility not just in this area but more broadly.

This is because migration is an issue which stirs huge egalitarian feeling. People often associate egalitarian instincts (an emphasis on ideas of fairness, shared values plus a suspicion of change driven by the state and markets) with the left, but in this case egalitarianism is most often expressed in hostility to migration. Progressives and champions of the rights of migrants and refugees do attempt to counter this with their own appeal to common values and grass roots mobilisation (see, for example, the brave and creative campaign, Simple Acts, advanced by the Refugee Week Partnership, which includes he Refugee Council and a number of other agencies) but these appeals lack the intensity of nationalism or tribalism.

The individualist approach to migration combines the desire of migrants themselves to improve their lot (or in the case of refugees – to save their lives) with the need of business to have as broad a labour market as possible from which to select employees.  Thus, individualism, which is normally associated with a right of centre perspective is, in the case of migration, the foundation for what looks like the progressive stance on this issue – the one argued by the RSA itself in a report published during the time of my predecessor.

Migration policy is complex for many reasons but a cultural theory analysis highlights why this is such a ‘wicked’ issue.  Egalitarians, individualists and hierarchists share powerful and apparently irreconcilable views which invert traditional alignments between ideology and models of change.

A successful migration policy has to find the aspects of each perspective which can be reconciled with the others.  How can hierarchists accept a policy that recognises and works within the limitations of state regulation?  How can egalitarians be engaged in shaping a realistic and humane migration policy that can be reconciled with cohesion and local fairness? And how can individualist aspirations be met in ways which recognise that for many people migration has few obvious benefits.

As usual, cultural theory offers no answers but it does force us to address the really tough questions.  As the recession deepens, the  tendency of hierarchists to over-claim, and egalitarian to express fear and suspicion, will grow.  But people's desire for a better life will not go away, nor  will the globalising effects of modern business and technology. At a time like this a workable and progressive migration policy requires exceptional insight and courage from those who frame discourse, develop policy, and live with its consequences.

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