Cable on migration: a bigger rift than you might think
Vince Cable’s recent opposition to coalition policy on the migration cap is entirely in keeping with his economic and social liberalism. Although we would quarrel with the former, we agree with him in opposing the social illiberalism of the migration cap.
This is about more than migration, though. It’s about whether the coalition is truly Thatcherite – which is not mere terminology – if it is, it will split.
It’s possibly slightly more nuanced to say that Cable’s argument is based solely on his economic liberalism: but he is opposed to a policy based solely on social illiberalism. The migration cap is not about addressing the economic consequences of migration (indeed it is being introduced when the economic downsides – greater competition for housing, transport and education – are likely to get worse due to cuts), but to make the coalition look even tougher on migrants than the previous administration, who were keen to do likewise.
Cable, in line with views from employers and indeed unions in the service sector, knows that reining in migration will only lead to bottlenecks and shortages. Some employers will move operations to where they can get the labour they need (or as cheap as they can get it); others will simply produce less (or offer fewer services – catastrophic in the health and eldercare sectors).
Some unions in the private sector are less keen on migration because it is often used to undercut skilled workers’ wages or transfer jobs abroad, and because it is used as a cheap alternative to training. But they are no keener on coalition migration policy overall, because it doesn’t address those problems.
So what does this have to do with Thatcherism? Her ideology married economic liberalism with social illiberalism, and it was as much the latter than the former which brought the last Tory government down. Cameron’s revolution was to ditch that illiberalism, which made the Tories more electable in middle class electorates and also, as it happened, made a deal with the Liberal Democrats possible. Seen in that light, the migration cap is dangerously out of line with both the economic and social policies of the Government.
But, in the same way that the coalition’s commitment to overseas aid expenditure is an unchallengeable sop to the left, the migration cap is an unchallengeable sop to the right. Which makes Cable’s challenge to it even more risky.