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22 November 2023

Keir Starmer needs a coherent plan for immigration

The public anxiety about borders is real, and it will still exist under a Labour government.

By Andrew Marr

This winter there will be an intense, post-Autumn Statement argument about tax-or-spend, and another, even angrier, about migration. In framing them, we should imagine the Britain of a few years’ hence, in 2026-27, say. No one knows the future. But a plausible guess would be of a Labour government, tightly economically constrained and facing, like almost everywhere else in Europe, a populist, insurgent right.

That could be a Conservative Party finally captured by anti-immigration hard nuts – and, in Nigel Farage’s jungle-dreams, led by him. Or a Reform UK-style party. But if you think the insurgent right is over in Britain, you know nothing.

As Labour responds to Jeremy Hunt’s plans, and to emergency legislation on asylum seekers, the party should be thinking about how positions it takes now will feel a few years into government.

Watch: Andrew Marr discusses Conservative “anger” over immigration figures on The New Statesman podcast

On the economy, Labour has pursued a tactic that looks, in sporting terms, like marking the opposition: keeping close, never breaking far away. Since Hunt’s appointment as Chancellor this “marking” has become more obvious – a constrained, imposed fiscal prudence mirrored from both sides, with great caution about the scope for spending increases or tax cuts, and much talk (so far futile) about productivity and growth.

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The constraints are real: the UK is experiencing the highest tax rate since the 1940s, eye-watering borrowing costs (Hunt’s “headroom” for tax cuts should be seen in the context of the UK government borrowing £14.9bn in October, the second-highest ever borrowing figure for the month) and stagnation. But inside the Treasury, they are almost hugging themselves with delight about political convergence. The ghost of Butskell walks: “Butskellism” being a phrase coined to satirise the fusion between the politics of the Tory Rab Butler and Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell in the 1950s.

The fusion was an illusion then and it is now. Rachel Reeves remains committed to a (diluted) £28bn green industrial investment plan. The government, as Rishi Sunak argued in a speech on 20 November, wants to make explicit the distinction between Labour spending and Tory tax-cutting. No more tax rises, for sure. But that apart, it is time for the marking to stop. The public realm is shattered. 

On 19 November Reeves spoke against cutting inheritance tax, which was one of the more offensive ideas floated by the Treasury in the press. Quite right. But she should have been explicit about reversing such a regressive and poorly timed idea. Indeed, Labour should not propose any tax cuts for the time being; if that is the dividing line the Tories want to draw before an election, it should be welcomed by Labour.

[See also: Scotland has an immigration problem]

Why? Because the biggest challenge facing an incoming Labour government is rebuilding the public sector on which we all rely. Voters will only support Labour if they are convinced there is a clear and certain plan for government – a great single cause.

But even now the economy, which still matters the most to voters, is in danger of being overshadowed by the row over “small boats” migration – the second part of the developing politics of the later 2020s.

Here, too, Labour needs to be bolder. As the world changes, it is stuck with a policy that is rational but also complex to explain and easily caricatured. On migration, voters understand that the Tories have failed, but Labour has not announced what it would do instead. Migration, legal and illegal, won’t stop under Labour – in a heating and warring world the issue may well escalate, and voters will be no more relaxed.

Keir Starmer’s tough talk about rooting out trafficking gangs gets him a little way, but not very far. Public anxiety about borders is real, not confected. As we contemplate weeks, potentially months, of intense parliamentary argument about Sunak’s proposed emergency legislation to overwrite law and establish “new facts” in response to the Supreme Court ruling against the Rwanda policy, it may be useful to step outside the purely British debate.

The Vienna-based International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), in its 2023 report, refers to a “global polycrisis”, which it argues marks a turning point in global and European migration history. The EU recorded a 64 per cent increase in irregular border crossings in 2022 and a 46 per cent increase in asylum applications. The US is in a similar position – in 2022 there were almost seven times more attempted boat arrivals than in the previous year. The ICMPD warns that Europe faces “perhaps the most challenging times since the end of the Second World War… in terms of migration, flight and displacement”.

The reasons for this range from war – 7.2 million Ukrainians fled to the EU after Russia’s full-scale invasion – to the effect of climate change in Africa, the ease of travel, the promotion of Western destinations on social media, and the cynical exploitation of migration by bad state actors. Finland has accused Russia of handing out bicycles to migrants to help them cross the border, in order to destabilise eastern Europe. The ICMPD characterised such a strategy “as a means of hybrid aggression”.

[See also: Is Nikki Haley a threat to Donald Trump?]

There should be no hysteria. According to Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, asylum seekers are only a small component of migration to the UK. It is dominated by students and their dependants, people on humanitarian visas and refugee settlement, and skilled workers.

However you cut it, this is an international story that cannot be resolved nationally. Eventually Labour will need to work with other nations in northern Europe to rewrite international agreements on migration to make life harder for people smugglers. Discussions about this have already started. Simply ending the prohibition of refoulement and returning migrants to their point of departure would mean intolerable public injustices and cruelty that, let’s hope, UK voters would not accept. But paying intermediate countries, such as Turkey, to detain migrants while their asylum cases are being assessed for onward transit could be on the horizon.

If this seems harsh, remember the alternative is a rise in far-right xenophobia in Western societies, a political shift that is already starting. Politicians have a duty to maintain domestic political stability as well as the rights of migrants.

On legal migration, Britain will keep a points-based system, since we remain a society that needs immigration. But you only get a system of real integrity when the government knows who is living here. Tony Blair tried to introduce a national identity database system but failed. Earlier this year, he and the former Tory leader William Hague jointly urged the roll-out of digital IDs as part of “the fundamental reshaping of the state around technology”.

Many fear this as a gateway to the surveillance state, despite the great amount of personal information already collated by the private sector. But it is not necessarily incompatible with democracy: India has been using the 12-digit Aadhaar card, the world’s largest biometric ID system, for the past 14 years. There are live discussions about all of this inside the shadow cabinet.

I don’t expect Labour to embrace all these ideas yet. The mood of caution around the opposition is such that a gentle cough can seem provocative. But a migration policy for the 2020s that does not closely involve other European democracies, and that refuses to re-examine the ability of the state to know its population, will soon not feel serious.

To win an election and then govern effectively in an era where right-wing anti-establishment populism is washing around the state, Labour needs to be bolder and clearer now. It needs to be more explicit about rebuilding the nation, rather than transient tax cuts. And it needs to view migration as a generational test of the security and the stability of the state, not merely the occasion for easy laughs at Tory failure.

[See also: Maga’s foolish embrace of Javier Milei]

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style