Ministers and MPs are nervous about a mass influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants putting the benefit system under strain next year. But ministers should beware, and learn from the political mistakes of the past. The failure to predict the scale of post-2004 migration to the UK from the EU caused major political problems for the Labour government. The public were left with the impression that the government was not in control of immigration and that Labour were contemptuous of public views and that they were even deliberately misleading them.

The Conservatives have less to worry about on the second point – polling suggests the public broadly support them on immigration – but they have plenty to worry about on the first. People are fast losing confidence that the Coalition can deliver on their promises, and critical reports continue to highlight institutional and administrative failings in the immigration system.

In this context the decision by the Prime Minister and other Conservatives to play up public fears about the likely impacts of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, while at the same time refusing to make predictions about its scale, risks reinforcing a public view that the Government shares their concerns but is not on top of the numbers. They should stop fanning the flames of public concern because 2014 will not be a repeat of 2004, not least because the UK has imposed the maximum transitional controls on migration from Romania and Bulgaria. Even in the years after 2004, when EU migration levels were very high, the UK economy proved flexible enough to absorb newcomers without major impacts on other workers. EU migrants make a substantial net contribution to the Treasury’s coffers, and are much less likely than British-born people to claim out-of-work benefits.

Crucially though, ministers also need to act now to make sure that the UK is ready to respond to whatever changes to migration flows do occur next year – it is perfectly possible to make good policy in the face of uncertainty. That means equipping local authorities to react quickly to local population changes, to make sure that there is not undue pressure on school places and other local services. It means working with farmers who currently rely on Bulgarian and Romanian fruit pickers to make sure that they can get their crops in if their workers abandon them work in other sectors. It means proactively supporting groups in the UK who are most vulnerable to labour market impacts (for example by improving the training and jobs offer for young unemployed people).

The Conservatives set themselves a political trap in opposition when they set a benchmark for Labour of predicting the unpredictable after 2004. Both parties should learn from their own, and each other’s, mistakes in the run up to 2014.

Sarah Mulley is Associate Director at IPPR

Tags: Bulgaria, EU, European Union, Immigration, Romania, UK politics