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  1. The Staggers
25 May 2023

Labour is trying to outflank the Tories on immigration

The publication of record net migration figures has put the issue back on the political front line.

By Freddie Hayward

Net migration was 606,000 in the 12 months up to December 2022. This figure reflects three key trends. That the government’s immigration policy since Brexit has intentionally brought more people in to fill gaps in sectors such as the NHS and social care. That the UK has welcomed thousands of people fleeing war in Ukraine and anti-democratic clampdowns in Hong Kong. And that the UK’s higher education sector is increasingly dependent on foreign students.

The public broadly supports these three different groups of migrants. This helps explain why even though almost half of the public want immigration reduced they aren’t sure where those cuts should fall. In general, attitudes towards immigration have become more positive since 2016. But I’m sceptical about the supposed liberalisation of attitudes towards immigration because of how quickly those views can change.

Watch: Freddie Hayward and Rachel Wearmouth discuss the immigration statistics on the New Statesman podcast

Labour is trying to take the conversation in a new direction. Keir Starmer has transitioned from champion of free movement to defender of “secure borders”. He said at PMQs this week that today’s figures constitute “uncontrolled” migration. In November, Starmer told business leaders that any increase in migration must be matched by business investment in homegrown skills. Labour’s announcement yesterday (24 May) – that it would scrap rules allowing companies to pay foreign workers less – is an example of that strategy.

Labour is trying to outflank the Tories on immigration. Remember that the Conservatives are vulnerable on the topic: left-wing voters dislike their harsh rhetoric and those on the right think they’re incompetent. Starmer’s comments at PMQs yesterday showed Labour will try to frame the government as having lost control.

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This is key. Brexit was supposed to give the UK control over its borders. But there’s a risk that voters will once again think immigration is uncontrolled if they see little alignment between what politicians say and what they do.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: Politicians should treat high immigration as a success, not a failure]

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