UKIP’s immigration plan is not realistic – but it really doesn’t have to be

Normal is as normal does. Stefan Rousseau/PA

To call UKIP’s position on immigration a fully formed policy might be overstating things, but the parameters of the party’s approach have become a little clearer with a series of announcements made on the campaign trail.

One thing is absolutely clear: UKIP wants to drastically reduce immigration. As news of spiking net migration figures were made public recently, immigration spokesman Steven Woolfe talked about an annual immigration cap of 50,000. This would halve the coalition government’s current commitment – apparently promised for a future Conservative government by Theresa May – to get net migration below 100,000.

But the new approach sounds a little different. Nigel Farage has expressed disdain for targets and caps, which he seemed to imply were an invention of the Westminster political class. Instead, he has proposed a “return to normality”.

Comfortingly for many UKIP supporters, this seemed to mean a return to the 1950s and 1960s, when levels of net migration were much lower than they have been for the past ten years. Normality in Farage’s terms would mean net migration of 25,000-50,000 people a year. By any stretch, such limits would have dramatic effects, and would completely redefine the UK’s approach to immigration.

UKIP’s position on immigration matters. The surge in support for the party ahead of the impending election is linked to its ability to capitalise on public discontent with politics and political leaders. And immigration is the issue that crystallises this breakdown in trust more than any other. UKIP has gone from being a single issue, anti-EU party to a dual issue anti-EU and anti-immigration party.

Already there

Even now, as the campaign is well underway, UKIP’s approach to immigration is a little light on detail – but some elements are clear.

The route for highly skilled entrants would be an Australian-style points system – although such a system is already in operation in the UK.

UKIP’s point is that it would manage things differently and be a lot tougher. An independent migration control board would be set up to decide what type of skills are needed and monitor numbers. Again though, the government already has an independent Migration Advisory Committee. So while UKIP may talk big, there’s not actually much new here.

The big one

What does sound a lot more radical is the party’s stance on immigrants coming in search of lower skilled employment. Farage has promised a five-year ban on low skilled migration, arguing that favouring unskilled European migrants over highly skilled entrants from outside Europe is unethical.

But we should question if such a radical approach would actually change anything. In 2014, the government’s Migration Advisory Committee produced a 300-plus–page analysis of the effects of migration into low skilled employment. It found that, of the 13m low-skilled jobs in the UK, 84% were held by UK-born workers and 16% (around 2m) by migrants. Of these 2m low-skilled jobs, around 60% were held by EU migrants and 40% by non-EU migrants. Controls are already in place on non-EU migrants, so any further controls would need to reduce EU migration.

Policy detail? Who cares? Gareth Fuller/PA

The only way to end low-skilled EU migration would be for the UK to leave the EU, but even that might not stop-low skilled migration from other EU member states. If the UK wanted to maintain a trading relationship with the EU and stay in the single market, it would very probably have to accept free movement rules.

In or out of the EU, it’s hard to see how an arbitrary ban on lower skilled migration could be applied.

Never mind the detail

But this brings us back to the roots of the political problem. UKIP is capitalising on public discontent about immigration, which stems not just from a negative view of immigrants but also antipathy towards political leaders.

There is credible evidence suggesting that there has been no overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or public services. Even the effects on the wages of lower-skilled workers have been small. But, as this research goes on to note, the biggest impact of immigration is on perceptions.

YouGov research suggests that many people have negative views about immigration, but are much less negative about immigrants. As the pollster Peter Kellner put it:

When we think of immigrants as individuals, we often see the way they enhance our public services – but when we think of immigration as an issue, we link it to government failure and economic insecurity.

UKIP’s approach matters because of what it tells us about the state of British politics as much as it tells us about the details of immigration policy.

UKIP supporters may not be too bothered about policy detail; they support UKIP because it says the kinds of things that the other parties don’t say. That potentially makes them less likely to probe their party on inconsistencies or press Nigel Farage to explain how he will actually implement his radical plans.

And it all ultimately matters in a knife-edge election like this because UKIP could have a small number of MPs able to extract concessions from a Conservative or Conservative-led government.

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