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30 April 2024

Inside Labour’s immigration dilemma

The party might keep the Rwanda plan until it has agreed a returns policy with the EU.

By Andrew Marr

On illegal migration, Labour has a problem. It is that the government’s Rwanda scheme, however limited in numbers, expensive, damaging to Britain’s international reputation and plagued by chaos (most recently, the Home Office appears to have mislaid several thousand migrants it intended to deport), may indeed have some of the deterrent effect Rishi Sunak said it would.

Speaking to journalists last week as the bill became an act, the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, sounded ready for battle on the “humanitarian” case for the deportation flights: stopping more people from dying in the Channel. Meanwhile, interviews with would-be migrants on the French coast are starting to pick up worries about the UK’s “Africa” policy. The threat of Rwanda, according to Ireland’s tánaiste, or deputy prime minister, Micheál Martin, is causing an influx of migrants from the UK into Ireland, because people are “fearful”.

Claims by Dublin that four in five recent asylum seekers into Ireland have come via Northern Ireland may well be overstated but the political atmosphere south of the Irish border has changed as people flee the UK. “Maybe that is the impact it was designed to have,” Mr Martin said. And this is before a single plane has taken off. In narrow terms – stopping former 2019 Tory voters from defecting to Reform UK – might the policy work?

And if Labour wins, what does it then do? Polling shows that migration is not high enough up the list of key issues for swing voters to the Conservatives but on the day after an election, this becomes Labour’s problem. 

On many of the key issues around migration, Labour has a good policy. And indeed, detailed polling suggests that the more voters know about Labour policies, the bigger the party’s lead on migration is. Its proposals on integrating migrants and encouraging them to take citizenship and to contribute through work and taxes are more practical and forward-looking than anything from the populist right.

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And it partly answers voters’ concerns: the Starmerite think tank Labour Together says that among voters the party needs to win over, its polling shows “a perceived lack of control over who comes here, the belief migrants take out more than they put in, and a concern newcomers to the UK do not hold British values and fail to integrate. These concerns are particularly acute at a time when housing and public services are under such obvious pressure.”

Christabel Cooper, one of the report’s authors, adds, “any migration system has to work for the benefit of those already in the UK”.

Behind the scenes, there are signs that these instincts will prompt Labour to look again at entitlement cards or ID cards, introduced by the last Labour government in 2006 but then quickly abandoned by the Tories. Despite concerns over civil liberties and practicality, identity cards could reassure voters that there are not large numbers of economic free riders.

But all of this, however, does not really touch the hottest part of the current argument – enforcement, or “stopping the boats”. At present, Labour remains committed to abandoning the Rwanda plan as soon as it takes power. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, doesn’t quite say that she would immediately repeal the act; but she does say in clear terms that she would not use it: “We are not going to do the Rwanda scheme.”

Instead, Labour wants to negotiate a better returns deal with France. That would involve legal migration routes from France in return for the automatic return of illegal migrants. But how long would this take? There could be a crucial period, early in the lifetime of a Starmer government when voters are judging it on competence and delivery, with no effective policy on illegal migration.

This, more than the pre-election argument, really worries senior Labour figures. Some go so far as to speculate that Labour might have to retain the Rwanda scheme until a returns policy with the EU has been agreed and signed. “We can’t just come in, tear it up, and have nothing to put in its place,” one senior adviser told me.

Given what Labour has said already about the scheme, and the feelings in the party, that would be a huge political gamble for Starmer. He has been concerned enough about the asylum dilemma to work closely with Cooper on a toughened border security strategy that will be rolled out over the summer, starting once the local elections are over. 

The Cooper policy is to further intensify border security – there is an announcement coming soon – and produce an early scheme to replace Rwanda that would be cheaper, more realistic in terms of the numbers of asylum seekers involved and compliant with international law.

It certainly involves a drive for more bilateral deals with countries outside the EU on the Albanian model – for instance with Vietnam, after a sudden increase in the number of Vietnamese women migrants, some heading for nail bars and many to sex work.

The next phase of policy centres on faster processing with a big increase in case offices, followed by swifter deportation of failed asylum seekers, which would save money on accommodation in hotels, reconfigured RAF bases and barges. Cooper has been pointing out to Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, that she might be the only member of the shadow cabinet able to save her money rather than asking for more.

Beyond this, figures in the party are already exploring European policies on processing asylum claims outside the EU: in North Africa, Turkey and other jurisdictions. That includes examining this February’s Italian-Albanian agreement, under which Italy processes would-be migrants at an Albanian port. That is, to say the least, controversial: Amnesty International has condemned the Albanian scheme as illegal and unworkable.

The Rwanda story has given Labour some of its easiest and best attack lines in opposition. It isn’t at all clear yet that the policy has been a “win” for Sunak: in the brighter and calmer weather of the early summer, we can expect the boats to continue coming and the gangs to try and convince their vulnerable victims that the risk remains worth taking. But as the election draws closer, so too do hard choices for Keir Starmer and Labour.

[See also: How radical is Labour’s new rail policy, really?]

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