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24 May 2023

Labour’s immigration opportunity

The party should blame high immigration on Tory short-termism and corporate profiteering – and offer an alternative.

By David Goodhart

Out of the corner of one eye I can see an unexpected political configuration taking shape. It could help to resolve some of the UK’s cognitive dissonance about post-Brexit immigration and also swing the next election decisively in Keir Starmer’s direction. Could Labour become the party of immigration reduction?

Most voters believe that the annual net migration figure to be announced tomorrow (25 May), projected to be around 700,000, is alarmingly high and should be reduced (as the 2019 Conservative manifesto promised). Yet few people strongly oppose any of the elements that make up the visa-controlled inflow: the humanitarian route for Ukrainians and Hong Kongers, the post-Covid bounce in student numbers, and the health and social care workers who account for half of the work visas.

Watch: Freddie Hayward and Rachel Wearmouth discuss the immigration statistics on the New Statesman podcast.

Some of these flows are one-offs and will disappear in the coming months and years, and most of the migration is, in any case, temporary. If Labour wins the next election it will, conveniently, inherit net migration numbers that are bound to return to more normal levels. A few noisy interventions now – such as Keir Starmer at PMQs today linking high immigration to a lack of training – makes it more likely that Labour will win the next election, and then allow it to claim some of the credit for the fall in numbers (however disingenuously).

The party needs to find ways of doing this without alienating its liberal base too much. One way is to frame high post-Brexit immigration as a consequence of acute Tory short-termism and too much employer influence.

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That so many construction and social care jobs are on the shortage occupation list (SOL) – which means that people can be brought in on work visas and paid not much more than the minimum wage – is symbolic of the failure of both parties over the past 25 years in training policy (such as the over-expansion of low-level university courses and neglect of vocational skills) and the lack of investment in social care. For both the state and the private sector, immigration is always a short-term solution that allows it to postpone productivity-improving investment in people or equipment.

As part of its high-investment economic strategy, Labour should make three pledges now with the aim of significantly reducing work immigration over five years. The first is to train more nurses and introduce a £1 supplement to the hourly minimum wage for social care workers, as part of a wider reform that would raise the skill level and provide more career progression for care staff. Both cost money, but at manageable amounts.

[See also: Why are voters so relaxed about immigration?]

Second, it should accept the recommendation of the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, which I work for, and use the £4.3bn left in the apprenticeship levy fund to fund small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) apprenticeships and boot-camp training schemes for all relevant jobs on the SOL. The model to follow is the haulage industry which in recent years, thanks to higher wages and government-supported training schemes, has created a healthy pipeline of young British HGV drivers.

Third, and most controversially, Labour should pledge to significantly raise the income threshold for work visas. They were meant to be for high-skilled, graduate workers, but thanks to effective lobbying by employers have been diluted to A-level equivalent, with an income threshold of around £26,000 (the median income is closer to £38,000) and even lower for those on the SOL. More than 60 per cent of all jobs in the UK economy are open to work-visa holders from abroad, a far higher proportion than originally intended.

This was one of the most overt post-Brexit conflicts between the old Conservative employer interest and the new Conservative worker interest. The employers won decisively, something that Labour should be able to exploit. The party doesn’t even have to be explicit about what income level it wants, it just has to say that it is too low and needs to rise. 

Scaling back the immigration work route can be easily aligned with social democratic ideas. Scaling back on international student migration is harder. Both parties are committed to making Britain an education and research global hub, and the country badly needs the export earnings that students represent.

Labour is particularly embedded within the higher education sector. But that should not prevent it from questioning the sheer number of students that are arriving at second-rank universities to do master’s courses (often for the two-year post-study work opportunity). Britain issued around 486,000 study visas last year to students who brought roughly 136,000 dependents, compared with 269,000 students and 16,000 dependents in 2019. The colleges pocket the money and externalise many of the costs to their towns and cities. At least Labour appears to be supporting the government’s move to stop students bringing in dependents on all but PhD courses. 

There is something else a new government with a clean slate should try to do: redirect our peculiar national obsession with quarterly and annual net migration figures. This is shared almost nowhere else in the developed world. I met a German Christian Democrat politician a few days ago who speaks on migration issues and he had no idea what Germany’s current net migration figure is. In the US the national debate is mainly about illegal immigration, but when it turns to legal migration it is about how many people are acquiring green cards, or permanent residency.

The overwhelming majority of people represented by the net migration figure (which currently stands at 504,000 in the year ending June 2022) are part of the churn of students and temporary workers (and Ukrainians), and will return home. Of course, while they are here they add to pressure on housing and public services (there have been seven million new GP registrations since 2010). And governments must be smarter at spotting where sudden spikes are causing distress. But the number of people granted permanent residence in 2022 was just 130,000. Only once in this century has the figure been over 200,000, and in most years it has been under 100,000. 

Since it is over-rapid demographic change that most people really worry about, Labour should pledge to keep increases in permanent residence below 150,000 a year. And to truly win over the median British voter, whose anxiety about immigration is rising again, the party should revive its plans for a citizenship identity scheme and a strengthened labour inspectorate to reassure people that entitlements go to those they are intended for. 

It should also make clear that it supports, in principle, the government’s attempt to end chaotic illegal refugee entry even if it has doubts about redirecting people to Rwanda (doubts apparently not shared by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which now locates refugees there).

If it did all this, Labour could even cheer its friends in the higher education sector by removing students from the net migration figures. Now that we can count students more reliably, it is technically possible to do this. We know that 99 per cent of those who do not move into other categories, such as work, return home after their courses. The Office for National Statistics is independent of government and could not simply be instructed to produce migration figures that exclude students. But it could produce parallel figures and government ministers could talk much more about permanent residence and the overall population. 

Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, has hinted at an outflanking strategy and has criticised the government for some of its recent liberalisation measures. But my suspicion is that this is too ambitious a challenge for a party whose liberal professional class base remains instinctively wedded to mobility, openness and which, to adapt Peter Mandelson on the rich, is “intensely relaxed” about rapid demographic change.

Immigration is a cause of deep cynicism with politics, especially in the wake of so many Tory failures to reduce it. If something like the above programme was adopted by the Conservatives prior to the next election, who would trust them to deliver it? If Labour is hungry for power, and disciplined enough, it could easily frame itself as the true party of immigration control.

[See also: Boris Johnson (still) thinks his ego is worth dividing Tories]

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