Manifesto Check: the Green Party offers a new take on immigration

Those protesting against the deportation of Yashika Bageerathi will find solace in the Greens’ manifesto. Jonathan Brady/PA Archive

Welcome to The Conversation’s Manifesto Check, where academics from across the UK subject each party’s manifesto to unbiased, expert scrutiny.

Immigration has for decades been among the most politically salient and negatively perceived issues in Britain. Against this backdrop, the Green manifesto has offered a distinctive message. But in the current political context, the party’s proposals lack detail, and they may struggle to be seen as providing a credible option.

Political leaders over recent years have responded to surveys which show people to have a persistently negative view of immigration. As a result, the political debate on immigration has typically focused on the number of migrants (and whether this can be reduced), the impacts of migration (particularly the economic costs) and the (in)effectiveness of government attempts to control migration. Indeed, this continues to be evident in the 2015 Labour manifesto.

A distinctive message

The Greens set themselves apart from this discourse, by stating that “migration is a fact of life” which can often be a response to international inequalities, climate change, war and conflict but that “much of the time … is voluntary, is on a relatively small scale and is a positive benefit for all concerned.”

These claims on the small scale and positive benefits of migration may be seen as controversial by some British commentators. The scale of immigration to the UK has increased since the 1990s and currently net migration is well above the tens of thousands, which the coalition government aspired to cap it at. But the rate of net migration to the UK does not, in fact, seem unbearably high when compared with that found in other countries.

A comparison of net migration, for different countries. Simon McMahon, Author provided

The Greens’ claims about the positive benefits of migration will be particularly contested. Yet research shows that immigration into the UK since 2000 has been a significant fiscal benefit to the country as a whole. It has also been found that there may be a small negative effect of immigration on the wages of low earners, but this is coupled with a positive effect on high and medium earners. So in reality, the benefits of migration are significant for many, but not exactly for all.

The common good

Underpinning the Greens’ policies on immigration is the central idea of “the common good”, which aims to create a humane and caring society that supports everyone’s needs. One way the party seeks to do this is by removing the requirement that British citizens earn at least £18,600 before being able to have their foreign spouse live in the UK.

The policy’s aim was to ensure that families were not a burden on the taxpayer. But studies have suggested that recent immigrants pay in more tax than the cost of their use of services – although this varies across groups, labour market sectors and the areas of the country where they reside. The policy has been strongly criticised for being over the minimum wage, which makes it too high to permit almost half of the working population to bring a foreign spouse, if they were to have one. It has been challenged in the High Court for separating partners, children and elderly relatives.

Similarly, the Green Party seeks to prevent asylum seekers from being destitute. This move was called for following a parliamentary inquiry into the matter, and supported by research.

The party also aims to end immigrant detention, as was called for when investigative journalism from The Guardian and Channel 4 revealed terrible conditions for migrants and refugees. The manifesto states that there would be opportunities for irregular migrants to stay in the UK, if their countries of origin were unsafe to return to, and that the summary deportation of people who are trafficked to the UK would be stopped.

Elements of uncertainty

Yet there are also uncertainties in the manifesto that mean that the Green Party’s immigration proposals may struggle to gain popular support.

The call to “address immigration as it is here and now” is somewhat vague. The manifesto states that the Greens would not take an “open borders approach” nor an “arbitrary numerical cap” on net migration (distancing them from the failed pledge of the coalition government). But all this does not tell us whether we should expect immigration to rise or fall under the Greens.

Furthermore, the manifesto is not entirely clear on what would be different in terms of migration control. There is mention of respect for mutual legal obligations within the EU, international obligations to accept refugees and the principle of integrity of the family. But these are already agreed in EU Treaties, international law and British law, and so should already be adhered to within UK policy.

It is unclear what would change for arriving migrants, which controls they would be subject to or what the might cost might be to the taxpayer.

By providing a manifesto that is less focused on the controls and costs that dominate the politics of immigration in the UK today, the Greens have provided a distinctive narrative of their own. Yet with public opinion calling for lower migration and stronger border control, it is possible that their approach will be overlooked or dismissed as unrealistic and unworkable.