Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
12 October 2016

What is Labour’s immigration policy?

The party's line is that numbers will be reduced, not that they should be. 

By George Eaton

“We don’t know what you stand for.” That was the lament Labour MPs frequently heard from voters during Ed Miliband’s leadership. The party’s nuanced policies on immigration and the deficit rarely translated into clear messaging. 

Under Jeremy Corbyn, the expectation was that this would change. Unlike Miliband, the Labour leader rarely agonises over policy stances. But the party’s position on immigration has recently been defined by confusion. 

At the Labour conference, Corbyn’s spokesman stated that it was “not an objective to reduce immigration”. But on the Andrew Marr Show last weekend, new shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer appeared to contradict his leader. “I think it [immigration] should be reduced,” he said, “and it should be reduced by making sure that we’ve got the skills in this country that are needed for the jobs that need to be done.” 

Yet that evening, Diane Abbott, now responsible for immigration policy as shadow home secretary, refused to endorse Starmer’s stance. Asked on the Westminster Hour whether numbers should be reduced, she replied: “I think the Tories got themselves in a lot of trouble setting arbitrary targets for immigration. What we should be doing is making sure that our own people have the skills and training to fill the needs of British industry.” 

Who’s right? On the Today programme this morning, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry presented the party’s settled position. Asked whether Corbyn agreed with Starmer that numbers should be reduced, she said: “Immigration will be reduced if the government did do as we are suggesting, which is to address our skills problem”. The tension lies between those who believe that reduced immigration should be an explicit policy aim and those who regard it as a potential byproduct of other measures (such as tougher employment regulation).

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Corbyn himself stated the latter position in response to the Conservative conference: “They [ministers] should stop the abuse of migrant labour to undercut pay and conditions, which would reduce numbers,” he said. As one might add, would a Brexit-induced crash. 

Content from our partners
How automation can help telecoms companies unlock their growth potential
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better
Feel confident gifting tech to your children this Christmas

But the fine distinction between believing immigration will be reduced and that it should be is one interviewers are likely to repeatedly exploit.