There is strong case that relaxing certain immigration controls would bring significant benefits for startups.  This is in addition to much evidence suggesting that the impacts of immigration are broadly positive.

Despite this, 77% of the British public want immigration to be reduced by a little or a lot. Together with the growing success of UKIP, this has led to a race to the bottom by the political parties to appear touch on immigration. Labour have said ‘they got it wrong’, and since 2010 the Conservatives have significantly tightened the immigration system.

How should we interpret, and more importantly how should we respond to, this worrying trend?

For policy wonks like me, it would be easy to just say that this is just one of those policy areas where public opinion is wrong and ministers should lead the charge, set unpopular policy and either win the public debate or ignore it.

But it’s not so easy for politicians.

Trade-offs

At a philosophical level, there is a genuine question about the role public opinion should play in determining policy, especially when that opinion is often based on factual errors. In my experience, most MPs take their constituents’ views incredibly seriously and will often agonise over cases where they diverge.

It obviously also matters a political level. As Alex Massie wrote last week about why ministers find it hard to be radical: ‘winning elections is a non-trivial part of the process’.

When it comes to setting policy, the basic challenge of government is to manage trade-offs. There are many ‘goods’ that you may want to maximise – growth, employment, health, education, democratic legitimacy, equality etc – but there are trade-offs between them.

Government isn’t a unitary body – there are 24 ministerial departments that constantly argue about the relative merits of these ‘goods’ (particularly when it comes to funding).

On the issue of immigration the Treasury and Department for Business (BIS) will be interested in how immigration can promote growth, while the Home Office is trying to hit a net-migration target while worrying about crime and security.

Inside No10, the Treasury, BIS (and even the Home Office) are ministers and officials who are sympathetic to the case for helping startups on immigration.

So what?

All this goes to show that we don’t simply need to win the technocratic argument for why immigration matters to startups. The people we’re trying to convince already largely agree with us, indeed Vince Cable himself made the case for migrant entrepreneurs at a Tech City News event last week.

Instead we need to take the public with us and so open up policy space (in political theory this is known as the Overton window) for broader immigration reforms. This is obviously easier said than done, but events like last week’s Tech City News International Hall of Fame are a great start. We should be showcasing examples of the massive contribution made by migrant entrepreneurs to the UK – if we don’t, we risk losing them.

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