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What would immigration look like under a progressive coalition?

A warmer welcome for immigrants? Stefan Rousseau/PA

One of the most charged moments of the third televised debate ahead of the 2015 election saw the leaders of the three smaller progressive parties round on UKIP’s Nigel Farage over his views on immigration.

With the smaller left-wing parties enjoying unprecedented coverage in the first few weeks of the 2015 election campaign, attention is turning to what their priorities actually are beyond better financial settlements for Scotland and Wales. And since immigration is one of the biggest issues, it’s time to think about what a shared policy in this area would look like.

Ed Miliband flatly rejected a collaboration with the Nicola Sturgeon during the debate. But if he manages to form a government after May 7, he may find that he will have to rely on support from some combination of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party to survive. He may, as a result, face pressure to make concessions in certain areas.

The message from the so-called progressive alliance – made up of the Green Party, Plaid Cyrmu and the SNP – is that it opposes demonising and scapegoating immigrants. This is pretty radical given that the three biggest parties and UKIP continue to push a familiar message of control and reduction.

Here’s how the various players in this interesting dynamic currently stand:

A federal system from the SNP

The SNP wants a federal immigration policy. The Scottish government would be able to tinker with the details on work and student immigration to reflect the specific needs of the Scottish economy. Scotland already has this to some extent. It has its own shortage list for skilled occupations that is separate to the wider UK. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s message is clear – immigration rules should be based on what is good for the economy, not driven by UKIP pandering.

The SNP is particularly opposed to the coalition’s student immigration policy. Sturgeon claims that Scotland is being deprived of top graduates as a result of the UK government’s decision to include students in net migration targets. To move away from this approach, the SNP would re-introduce the post-study work visa, which allows graduates to stay in the UK to work for two years after finishing university.

Low priority in Wales

Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru wants a federal immigration policy. Party leader Leanne Wood agrees with Sturgeon on the need to fill local economic gaps with migrant workers.

But Plaid doesn’t have much of a policy beyond this. That’s possibly because immigration is not as pressing an issue for voters in Wales – or indeed Scotland – as it is perceived to be elsewhere in the UK. The small national parties therefore don’t need to win the electorate over in the way the bigger UK parties seem to think they do.

Greens for family values

The Greens certainly have the most ideologically rooted vision of what an immigration policy should look like. Immigration, for this party, is a consequence of wider inequalities in the global system. So while the Greens still talk about controlling immigration, they want to do it in a fair and humane way.

This would mean progressively reducing immigration controls – particularly those that harm family life.

There’s a fair amount of substance in the Greens’ policy on these specific issues. Yet whether they consider current immigration figures acceptable or not is far from clear.

Labour talks tough

In contrast to the fringe parties, immigration is a key issue for Labour. If the party fails to get the immigration message right, it stands to lose voters. With this in mind, it has made controlling immigration one of its core election pledges. Nobody is clear on precisely what this means but it’s familiar terrain, indistinguishable from the rhetoric of both their predecessors and the Conservatives.

By far the loudest and most consistent message we’ve heard from Labour is Ed Miliband apologising for the “mistakes” made by his predecessors. This is understandable, given how displeased the electorate was with the managed migration policy. The trouble is, it lacks any kind of substance and fails to provide the electorate with any clear idea of how things would change under a Miliband-led government.

Policies that have been trailed include new laws to prevent employers undercutting wages, an enforcement of the minimum wage, recruit an additional 1,000 border staff and introducing exit checks. Labour will also retain the cap on non-EU workers, presumably this refers to the Tier 2 annual limit. Whether Labour would keep the net migration target remains to be seen.

Coupled with the ban on claiming welfare entitlements for the first two years of residence, there is, as Jack Straw said more than ten years ago, barely a cigarette paper separating Labour and Tory policy on immigration.

Imagining a progressive policy

If a progressive alliance formed after May 7 from a combination of these parties, there could be a lot to play for when it comes to immigration.

We’d see the re-introduction of the post-study work visa. This could possibly include more liberal rights attached to student visas in terms of working and family reunification in a bid to attract more international students to Scottish universities.

Family rights is likely to be a point of principle for the Greens. They will want to see changes made to protect family life, and will campaign hard to reduce delays and excessive requirements on proof of relationships.

Where we do see a divide between the Greens and the SNP is on the selection of migrants. While Plaid and the SNP are clear that they need a system underpinned by labour market needs, the Greens state that preference should not be given to those with resources or desirable skills. They see this as a form of discrimination.

Labour’s approach to potential undercutting and job displacement by tackling rogue employers and a stricter enforcement of minimum wage is something all the parties can agree on. Such proposals chime nicely with the Greens’ ambitions to end the exploitation of workers and provide better protection under the law.

But ultimately, when Labour enters into the mix, a coherent immigration policy based on the stated plans of the other fringe parties will be tricky. The SNP and Plaid will push for greater devolution, which might include greater control on skilled migration, setting their own annual quotas if the limit was maintained. Wales might also bring in a separate shortage occupation list, like Scotland. But it is highly unlikely that Labour will agree to a federal immigration system.

The approach being taken by the women party leaders in this election represents a genuinely progressive turn in a debate that has been fuelled by UKIP’s populism. Yet immigration is not a key area for the fringe parties, ideologically or electorally. And since it is for Labour, the larger party will probably win out in negotiations. Whichever parties make an alliance, agreement or coalition in May, Labour will not give way on its core plans for immigration.

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