Immigration policy sounds easy to the uninitiated. It seems a matter of simply deciding how many people are needed to maintain the desired population, then let that many in and no more. Like drafting sheep. Politicians make it sound that simple when they announce they will cut immigration to a specified figure. If that was possible governments would keep to a set figure, but history shows they cannot.
Immigration flows have fluctuated wildly over the years, sometimes in response to slight changes of policy. The Labour Party will be hoping the target it announced yesterday is drastic enough to win votes at the election in September but not so drastic that it would bring the economy's growth to a shuddering halt.
Labour is forever warning that the growth of recent years has been largely driven by record immigration and it is right, though tourism and other trading sectors are contributing strongly. But if Labour is going to attribute the good times to excessive immigration and promise to cut it, the party will need to explain how it would maintain economic growth.
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There is little doubt Labour's target would lower immigration, but probably by more than it would want. Even National's recent gentle step on the brake, denying residency permits for jobs earning less than the median wage, may be having a drastic impact on ethnic restaurants and some other service sectors. The evidence so far is anecdotal but by September the effects might be seen in economic and job statistics.
Labour, too, proposed to refuse permits for lower-paying jobs, which it believes can be filled from the ranks of young unemployed who are not in training and not even registered as unemployed because they are not taking jobs available. If Labour blocks highly motivated migrants from these jobs and not enough local youngsters can be recruited and quickly trained for them, these sectors will shrink and the contraction would be felt in the wider economy.
It is telling that the party is making an exception for the building industry. Building should be finding it easier to recruit locally than sectors such as hospitality and elderly care, yet Labour fears its state house building programme will be harmed if it cannot hire overseas. It could have more sympathy for firms in the private sector facing skill shortages.
Labour is also proposing to reduce foreign student visas which would damage a thriving "export" education industry. Leader Andrew Little called this an industry of "low level" courses yesterday, providing a "back door" to residency. They are language and craft courses, often provided by private training establishments. Labour will stop issuing student visas for courses below a bachelor's degree which are not independently assessed to be of high quality.
It means immigration is one of those election issues that will offer voters a stark choice: to continue with the tensions and pressures of a population boom or apply the brake and hope the boom slows without coming to a complete stop.