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Vote 2010: policy guide - immigration

By Simon Israel

Updated on 07 April 2010

Immigration is a high-priority issue for voters, but that may be because so many governments in the past have failed to deliver on promises, writes Simon Israel.

UK Border Agency epaulette (Reuters)

As is the norm, none of the parties are offering precise targets.

Governments have failed too many times in the past to deliver on promises made to clamp down on immigration, and some argue it's that which primarily gives the impression it's in some way out of control.

Be prepared to be bamboozled with figures as each party tries to look tough. but at least it's a debate which has so far avoided the race issue (BNP excepted.)

Immigration is number two in voters' priorities, reflecting a prevailing view that these islands are overcrowded. Predictions of the population rising to 70 million in a few years have played into those fears.

The political debate is quite narrow. It assumes that immigration can be controlled, like slowly turning off a tap when water gets too near the top of the bath.

It's down to counting those coming in against those going out. The equation - net immigration -  must as some future point be zero. The Office of National Statistics forecast that being reached in 2016, but it assumes many variables which are outside the UK's control.


Labour wants a drip-drip approach to reinforce the points systems, so restricting further the jobs to be filled from abroad and the numbers settling in the UK, and targeting the indigenous to the unfilled vacancies (the fruit and vegetable pickers, the office cleaners and such).

Gordon Brown last week tried to take the tough but fair line. Labour is sensitive to its failed promises, and the prime Minister's claims that immigration is falling was, thanks to Channel 4 News's FactCheck team, found to be misleading.

Asylum figures are down, that's true, but the electorate's concerns have shifted to the threat migration poses to the economy.

It does beg the question, though, as to why the economic migrant has been so successful in finding work, for the current estimate is around 700,000 now living in the UK.


The Conservatives propose a cap - a maximum at which point the tap is turned off.

While David Cameron can do nothing about migration within the EU, outside Europe is a different matter. His plan is to reduce net migration to tens of thousands and to heavily restrict foreign student visas.

But counting's one thing - closing the UK's doors is quite another.


Staying with the bath analogy, the Lib Dems want to fit a shower attachment to the tap. In other words, there needs to be more dispersal of immigrants, that too many are concentrated in too few areas - hence the overriding perception of an overcrowded island certainly in the south.

Nick Clegg believes more can be moved north by some sort of process of osmosis, where immigrants are channelled to areas of labour shortages. In other words, regionalised control.

But how to prevent someone drifting down the M6 with a promise of greater prosperity is unclear.

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