The net migration target may have failed, but it has shifted the way we debate immigration
Image of a leaflet on the ground with the title 'Immigration' and written sections on each UK political party's stances on immigration policies.

By Christina Boswell

Figures released by the ONS today suggest that net migration to the UK stands at an all time high, at 336,000. The UK government’s pledge to reduce net migration ‘from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands’ seems further than ever from being achieved.

So why hasn’t the government killed off this compromising target? One obvious answer is the political risk of abandoning a target once it has been set. Cameron and Theresa May are fully aware that the target is in many ways a liability. But they have calculated that dropping the target at this stage will send out an even more damaging political message: that their commitment to reducing immigration has been diluted.

But while the target may have been a failure, it has had significant effects on the way we talk about immigration. By setting a single, high-profile, quantitative target, the government has irreversibly shifted how we define and assess policy on immigration.

In our ESRC project on the Politics of Monitoring, we distinguish two main effects of this type of quantitative performance measurement. The first concerns how we categorise and count immigrants. The exercise of counting net migration implies suppressing important distinctions between groups – whether students, intra-company transferees and European Economic Area nationals, family migrants or refugees – and counting them as equivalent units. This glosses over important differences in the reasons behind migration, for example, whether it is economic, family-related, linked to study, or fleeing persecution. And it overlooks the varied impacts of immigrants on the UK economy and society, as well as differences across regions of the UK.

Importantly, this re-classification of which immigrants ‘count’ has shifted political attention, bringing previously unproblematic – or even unobserved – groups of immigrants into the political spotlight. Few people were anxious about foreign students or high-skilled labour migrants before the target was introduced. Now they are all part of a problem to be reduced. What’s more, these new classifications are now embedded in the way statistics are produced and disseminated, and the way in which the public expects to appraise the government and hold it to account.

The second effect concerns the role of measurement. It has now become normal to frame immigration issues through using statistics, and especially in terms of overall flows. The use of numbers provides a particularly clear and authoritative way of expressing goals, one that appears more precise and objective than qualitative descriptions. It promises an especially rigorous way of holding the government to account.

Opposition parties have played into this, frequently pegging their critique on the government’s failure to meet its own target. This constant invocation of the target – even by its detractors – only reinforces the idea that such targets are valid and appropriate ways of framing policy. Meanwhile, Labour has struggled to articulate a clear and compelling message on immigration, partly because of its (justifiable) refusal to adopt a clear and simple target. The fact of the matter is that targets work very well as political messages.

We may dislike targets. We may find them simplifying, distorting and in many cases unrealistic. But once policies are framed in terms of precise quantitative goals, it is very difficult to undo these effects. In UK immigration debates, it has become difficult to resist assessing policy in terms of overall inflows of migrants or articulating goals in terms of numbers. The net migration target may have failed, but it has profoundly influenced the way we deliberate on immigration policy.


Cover Picture: Metin Ozer on Unsplash.