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30 November 2023

How the politics of immigration has changed

Keir Starmer’s comments on foreign workers undercutting salaries were not criticised in the same way Gordon Brown was in 2007.

By Freddie Hayward

“Why such small politics, Prime Minister?” “Small” can mean parochial, unambitious, pinched and trivial. This was the word Keir Starmer used to describe the Prime Minister’s refusal to meet with his Greek counterpart over the return of the Parthenon sculptures. It was a victory for the Labour leader’s speechwriters. Starmer did well at PMQs yesterday (29 November) to expose the constraints under which Rishi Sunak is fighting to win the next election. Fenced in by his party’s disunity, incoherence and legacy, Sunak is operating in ever-narrower space. He is trying to escape the predicament that he and the Conservatives find themselves in. The Prime Minister looked rattled and – the emotion he most often expresses unguardedly – irritated. But this exchange was not the most significant thing about PMQs.

During the 2007 debate on the Queen’s Speech in the House of Commons, David Cameron rose to the despatch box with two leaflets in hand. One bore the headline “British jobs for British workers”, the other read “Keep British jobs for British workers”. He said they were leaflets from the far-right National Front and the British National Party. A few weeks before, Gordon Brown had said in his conference speech the government would be “drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers”, which elicited the righteous condemnation from Cameron: “Where was his moral compass when he was doing that?”

At PMQs Starmer said that immigration is suppressing wages: the 20 per cent “salary discount” for migrants arriving on the Shortage Occupation List was an incentive “to use overseas recruitment to undercut local wages”. But the Labour leader was not met with the same response as Brown. In fact, the performance was hailed as his best outing at PMQs, a turning point in Labour’s campaign to conquer No 10.

I don’t raise this anecdote to accuse the current Labour leader of indulging in far-right politics. An argument does not stop being true just because someone with unpalatable views makes it. Oswald Mosley’s support for Keynesianism does not make demand-side economics fascistic. Even some racist conspiracy theorists accept the Earth is round. Nor are the comments from the two Labour leaders identical.

The point is that the discourse around immigration has shifted from hysteria that Gordon Brown’s purported analysis of the labour market (although it wasn’t only that) was, as the Guardian put it in 2009, “meaningless, racist and even illegal under EU law”, to being celebratory of the current Labour leader’s savvy attack. The UK is no longer a country in which a political leader might dismiss someone who raises concerns about mass migration, as Brown did when he called Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman”; instead, it is one where the two main parties are keen to look as if they’re able to reduce immigration.

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This goes against the growing consensus that the public is at ease with mass migration. Why would both parties act in this way if there was no political benefit to doing so? Indeed, 60 per cent of people think immigration has been too high over the past decade. Since 2010, the winning party at every election has succeeded on a platform to reduce immigration. No party was elected to increase migration. Yes, the issue is eclipsed by the cost-of-living crisis. But concern about immigration is at its highest level since September 2017. At the same time, there are anti-migrant riots on the streets of Dublin and victories for the hard right around Europe. This, and not taboos over language, is the context for the politics of immigration in 2023.

[See also: Rishi Sunak should stop trying to appease the Tory right]

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