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  1. Election 2024
  2. UK Politics
15 September 2023

Labour’s immigration gamble isn’t supposed to appeal to everyone

Starmer has been lambasted by left and right, but his EU-returns deal targets “hero voters” who voted Conservative in 2019.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Keir Starmer took a rare political risk this week when laying out Labour’s plan to deal with immigration.

The opposition leader would try to secure a returns deal with the EU if he got in power. That would involve brokering an agreement with the bloc for the UK to take a quota of asylum seekers in exchange for returning those who make the dangerous journey across the Channel in small boats. At the same time, Labour would recruit more asylum caseworkers to clear the backlog and reduce the number of migrants put up in hotels.

Separately, the former director of public prosecutions, who visited The Hague this week to meet with Europol officials, has suggested people-smuggling gangs should legally be placed “in the same sort of category” as terrorists, as he vowed to get tough on the “vile” trade. 

The approach stands in stark contrast with Rishi Sunak’s uncompromising “stop the boats” agenda, which Starmer has criticised as unworkable and expensive. Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s Illegal Migration Bill, which includes the plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda while their claims are processed, was ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal judges this summer. That decision has put the legislation in doubt, and prompted Conservative MPs to argue over Britain’s membership of the European Court of Human Rights. 

Meanwhile, boat crossings continue. The latest government figures show a record 175,000 people are waiting in the UK for a decision on an asylum claim (a 44 per cent increase since June 2022). The divide between Labour and the Tories on this key electoral issue can broadly be described as: deterrent vs cooperation.

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[See also: What’s behind Labour’s new Brexit position?]

The Conservatives have seized on the idea of Labour doing a deal with the EU, despite Sunak himself previously intimating the government favours a similar returns agreement. Braverman went on the attack, claiming Starmer wants to turn Britain into a “dumping ground” for asylum seekers, while the Conservative Party said a deal would involve Britain accepting 100,000 migrants – a warped figure considering any such agreement with the EU would involve around only 30,000.

Starmer, who again said he would not reintroduce freedom of movement, described those who disagreed with his plan as “un-British”. He has also been lambasted by some on the left. The Fire Brigades Union general-secretary Matt Wrack said the Labour leader is in “danger of pandering to right-wing Tory rhetoric” on immigration. Steve Smith, of the group Care4Calais, also accused the party of trying to “mirror the gimmicks and divisive rhetoric” of the government. 

The audience for the plan, however, is not natural Labour supporters but its “hero voters” – former Labour voters who backed Brexit and then the Conservatives in 2019, but who could support Labour again. Insiders say this group is sceptical that any party can solve the immigration crisis. One of their top frustrations is the use of hotels, military barracks and barges to house migrants.

Labour hopes voters in the middle ground will be receptive to the plan, not least because of the growing credibility gap between Starmer and Sunak on immigration. According to YouGov’s polling tracker, 86 per cent of people think the government is handling immigration badly. The same organisation’s survey showed 80 per cent of Tory voters are not confident Sunak’s “stop the boats” plan will work, and 73 per cent of all voters do not believe the Rwanda plan will ever happen. Labour has a lead over the Conservatives as the best party for handling immigration, but only by a slim margin: 23 per cent vs 16 per cent.

Sources say Labour candidates in target seats believe growing Brexit scepticism and chronic failures on immigration mean the plan will be a success on the doorstep. They are already asking for campaign leaflets that pledge Labour will end the use of hotels and barges.

Immigration has always been a sensitive issue for Labour. Starmer will hope his gamble can square that weakness.

[See also: Labour’s position on Europe is slowly emerging]

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