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10 May 2024

Will Labour’s alternative to the Rwanda scheme work?

Keir Starmer has recognised that the belief his party has no plan to “stop the boats” is a problem.

By Freddie Hayward

Immigration splits the Labour Party. There are some who think low-skilled immigration suppresses wages, those who fear it’s a gift to the nationalist right and those who value diversity per se. That’s partly why immigration is one of the largest unknowns in Labour’s plans for government: consensus is elusive. Keir Starmer speaks vaguely about bringing net immigration down but does not provide a figure. He has said Britain has an “immigration dependency” but has been unclear about how he will pay people, such as in social care, to do the jobs low-paid migrants currently do.

Another reason is that the Conservatives have doggedly pursued the Rwanda scheme as a dividing line with Labour. Starmer’s strategy so far has been to criticise the plan as gimmicky, expensive and ineffective. Nonetheless, rumours have circulated for weeks that Labour would ultimately retain the scheme if it started to work. The Irish government’s recent complaint that migrants were fleeing the UK in response to the policy was cited by Tories as proof of a deterrent effect. This fuelled speculation that Labour – whose own plan lacks a deterrent – would be forced to U-turn and keep the policy.

But that now seems unlikely after Starmer declared in a speech in Dover today that the Rwanda scheme would be “replaced permanently”. “[The government] will get flights off the ground – I don’t doubt that,” he said. “But I also don’t doubt that this will not work.” He conceded that the Conservatives genuinely care about stopping illegal migration, but he argued the government is obsessing over gesture politics just like those on the left who want open borders. He framed himself as the “reasonable” politician who wants both secure borders and compassion towards migrants. Building on one of his key themes, Starmer attacked Westminster for prioritising rhetoric and stopgaps over practical solutions.

Labour’s alternative is to establish a Border Security Command which would crackdown on people smugglers through cooperation between the security services, police and Home Office, and new counter-terrorism-style powers. The plan is to work with European countries to disrupt the dinghy supply chain. It’s practical, incremental politics. The target is the gangs, not the migrants.

What of the politics? Starmer was introduced by Natalie Elphicke who defected to Labour from the Conservatives on Wednesday because she said she had lost faith in the government’s borders policy. That Elphicke supported the Rwanda scheme and sat on the party’s right has perturbed some Labour MPs. But her presence in the party articulates Starmer’s attempt to reach those concerned about immigration and the Channel crossings. In that vein, he admits that stopping the boats is the right objective but claims the Rwanda scheme will not work.

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Today’s speech was a recognition that the perception that Labour had no plan to stop the boats was becoming a problem for Starmer. It is also another point of consensus between the two main parties about the country’s problems, if not the solutions.

Which brings us to whether this will work. On Sky News earlier, Yvette Cooper refused to say whether Labour would halve the boat crossings or stop them entirely. The Tories and parts of the media will excoriate a Labour government if the crossings continue. Ultimately – as the Tories have come to realise – what really matters is whether the policy achieves its objective.

[See also: How Labour should handle the rise of the Greens]

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