Comment: Immigration spikes test social cohesion

THE latest surge in immigration to Britain is stark evidence that both the Prime Minister and the business community are out of touch with much of the public on the vexed issue.

EU membership rules opened a Pandoras box of mass migration. Photograph: Getty Images

David Cameron is culpable for the hostage to fortune he spawned with his pledge on annual net migration: to reduce the difference between those entering the country and leaving to tens of thousands from the hundreds of thousands countenanced by the Blairite sofa government.

More glib than feasible, even before the benefit of hindsight. If the government has no control over the numbers of Britons who emigrate, how could it steer net migration with any degree of accuracy to a more electorally palatable level?

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And, with each surge in immigration, notably from the European Union under the bloc’s unthinking piety that is freedom of labour movement, the apparently one-eyed focus of the CBI and some other employer groups on the economic benefits skilled foreign workers bring to Britain looks simplistic.

The positive attitude and economic efficiencies many overseas workers contribute to our workplaces is a legitimate business argument. But economic benefits are not the definitive word on the subject. The need for social cohesion is equally important, and although employers bodies make the right noises on that subject as well one wonders whether – as with bankers’ bonuses – they really “get it”.

We are a pretty small island with pressures on housing, the NHS, schools, welfare budgets and much else. For us as a nation not also to consider such factors in a complex and never far from febrile debate, or to dismiss perfunctorily such concerns as closet racism, is blatantly wrong.

We all know that the Prime Minister in his net migration targets has one eye on the apparently inexorable advances of the UK Independence party (Ukip).

And Ukip certainly benefits from data such as we saw last week, where net migration to Britain jumped nearly 40 per cent, or 68,000, to 243,000 in the year to March 2014. About two-thirds of the increase was from the EU.

But you don’t have to be a supporter of some of the more swivel-eyed Little Britain members of Ukip, and still hope Britain remains part of the EU (which I do), to believe the migration debate is too fundamental to the common good to be just left to the business lobby.

There was never any inevitable reason why the free movement of goods, services and capital under the rules of EU membership should be accompanied by free movement of labour. One could have had the benefits and shared economic strength of free movement of goods and services without opening the Pandora’s box of mass migration across effectively borderless countries.

The Prime Minister’s only wiggle room is to woo like minds in the EU – Germany, France and Holland, for instance, have similar migration concerns – to revisit this fundamental tenet of the open market and try to make changes.

Otherwise the Prime Minister –whose party has been riven by dissension over the EU for a generation – and Britain’s captains of industry will both be seen by a large slice of the electorate as having a tin ear for its concerns and blinkered vision on how to address them.

Tesco heading back to basics – and quickly

‘DRASTIC’ Dave Lewis’s whirlwind arrival at Tesco tomorrow certainly suggests he intends to hit the aisles running, so to speak. It is one month ahead of schedule, and with hapless predecessor Phil Clarke abruptly dispatched to obscurity this weekend rather than after the planned few months’ transition period.

Pretty ignominious for Clarke, but that’s not the half of it. The new man from Unilever was consulted on the massive 75 per cent cut in the interim dividend Tesco also announced on Friday, along with the major retrenchment of its capital investment plans. Oh, and a second profit warning within two months.

Putting two and two together – at which the supermarket giant has not been adept in recent years – you suspect the financial decks are being cleared to give Lewis a warchest for a far more draconian price-promotion war with the likes of Asda, Morrisons and the German discounters Aldi and Lidl than had been contemplated by the more herbivorous Clarke.

A few inferences from the kerfuffle seem fair. One, that the Tesco board is very rattled indeed at the pace of the retail giant’s fall from grace. Speed is of the essence.

Second, that the reining in of both the divi and capital investment suggest Lewis believes the priority for quite some time will be for the once imperious Tesco to regain its footing in the shifting sands of food retailing.

Expansion or diversification is likely to be right on the backburner as he tries to drag the icon out of the hole it has got itself in.

It will be interesting to see if, as I strongly suspect, under the new boss we see the company revert to trying to get the basics right again in the home UK market.

Arguably, Tesco took its eye off the ball in Britain as under Clarke and his predecessor, Sir Terry Leahy, international expansion became the more glamorous main game in town. We might be at the start of a back-to-basics campaign. «

Twitter: @martinflanagan8