Migration hits new high – how to fix it

Despite decades of broken promises from both parties, net migration is at record levels. What is to be done?

Migration - young adults, photographed from above, on various painted tarmac surface
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Last year about 1.2 million people moved to the UK, almost certainly the highest number in history. “Net migration” (the term widely used to mean net inward migration, that is immigration minus emigration) was 764,000 in 2022 and 685,000 in 2023 – about triple the level at the last general election in 2019. That’s a far cry from the “tens of thousands” promised by the Conservatives at both the 2015 and 2017 election. Overall, since 2010, when the Conservatives came to power (initially in coalition with the Lib Dems), 10 million people have moved to the UK, and 6.3 million have left, meaning net migration of 3.7 million. As the authors of a recent Centre for Policy Studies paper arguing for far greater controls on immigration (they include two Tory MPs, Robert Jenrick and Neil O’Brien) point out, that influx is the equivalent of the populations of Edinburgh, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Stoke, Bristol and Cardiff put together, or more than the entire population of Wales.

Migration hits record levels

In February, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its latest projections for the UK’s population. The ONS thinks the number of people living here will hit 70 million by 2026 – a decade earlier than previously envisaged – and then grow to 73.7 million over the following decade. Net inward migration is expected to account for more than 90% of the 6.6 million increase in population between 2021 and 2036. If that rise does happen, it will mark a speeding up, rather than a slowing, of the UK’s population growth due to migration. To put it in context, in the 25 years up to 1997 (when Labour came to power under Blair), cumulative net migration was 68,000. In the following 25 years to 2022, it was 5.9 million – almost 100 times as high.

Britain's slow growth

In nearly every year from 1947 until the early 1980s, Britain saw net emigration (or “negative net migration” in the jargon). At the time, this was not seen as a positive, and policy-makers fretted about the “brain drain” of talent. Broadly, positive net migration is a sign of a thriving and globally competitive economy, says Ed Conway on his blog. Potential immigrants were clearly unimpressed by the slow growth (in global terms) and high inflation of Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. Net migration also turned negative after 1988, as Britons took advantage of new free-movement rules in the European Community. Then, the most recent period when the UK saw negative net migration was in 1992 and 1993, when we faced a toxic combination of a deep recession, high unemployment and double-digit interest rates.

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Is rising immigration good for the economy?

There’s the rub. Positive net migration is a sign of a prospering economy, but very large numbers of newcomers can put strains on societies for well-known reasons: pressure on public services and housing, and (for some voters) fears over social cohesion and cultural differences. The current upsurge in migration is a global issue: the US, Canada, Australia and many European countries are also seeing large increases, and many countries are seeing more heated debates, and the rise of nativist and/or anti-immigration politics. Here, the UK has become uncomfortably reliant on foreign workers, says Jeremy Warner in The Telegraph – and changing that will involve difficult trade-offs.

Jenrick and O’Brien argue that it’s a myth that immigrants boost the economy in terms of GDP per capita, pointing out that the past 15 years have been marked by both high immigration and ultra-low growth. But even so, cutting migration numbers significantly would be likely to entail a more inflationary and lower-growth economy, and massive labour shortages in social care, healthcare and hospitality. Jenrick argues that the UK should cherry-pick the brightest, becoming what he calls a “grammar school” of the Western world for the highly skilled and talented. But that’s hardly a new idea; “the world and his dog are in hot pursuit of that particular holy grail”. There are no easy answers here, which is why it’s such a hot electoral issue.

What are the parties proposing?

Nothing credible. The trouble is, says Matthew Syed in The Sunday Times, that decades of deceit and broken promises from politicians on this issue have fatally corroded trust. Voters can hardly be blamed for thinking that none of them have a clue what to do, or the ability to do much. The key, according to Syed, would be to “accept short-term pain for long-term gain”. The UK needs to end its “addiction to low-wage labour, which saves money in the here and now, but stores up vast liabilities because such workers are net recipients of tax funds – a classic Ponzi scheme”. We need higher wages to attract British workers, while focusing immigration policy on wooing “high-skilled individuals, who tend to integrate superbly and whose enterprise and ideas will not just boost GDP per capita, but also enrich our society, as immigrants so often do”. In the short term, an incoming Labour government may face less pressure on this issue than is widely presumed, says Delphine Strauss in the Financial Times. Net migration is now on a downward path, and it’s likely to fall this year and next as Rishi Sunak’s measures to cut it take effect and student numbers fall. Moreover, Labour’s core supporters are more sanguine on the issue than those on the right.

How to solve migration in the long run

In the long term, says Larry Elliott in The Guardian, a lower-migration UK would need to transition to a different economic model – higher wage, higher productivity, more highly automated. That’s a task that would obviously not be easy or cost-free, either for taxpayers or consumers – or for politicians. Ending the UK’s dependence on cheap foreign labour would involve much higher investment in the NHS and social care, a comprehensive industrial strategy designed to boost skills, action to help adults with numeracy and literacy and tailored programmes to increase the number of people seeking to make the transition from welfare to work. “Since 2010, successive Tory governments have promised to reduce immigration, but the economy has become addicted to it. Ending this dependency is not going to be easy. Cold turkey never is.”

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Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.