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The future of Labour’s immigration policy


4 min read Partner content

At a fringe event hosted by the Migration APPG and EY, former immigration minister Sir Keir Starmer discussed how the Labour party should shape its immigration policy post-Brexit.

Former immigration minister Keir Starmer was upfront about the issues the Labour party had around immigration policy at the Monday evening fringe event.

“If we are honest with ourselves, Labour has been lacking in confidence on immigration for a number of years. We don’t know what to say and we are on the back foot in debates.”

This is worrying, said Starmer, because without knowing what Labour stands for on the issue, it cannot fulfil its role as an opposition party and hold the Government to account.

He said after touring the country on a fact finding mission, he saw that there were two clear camps invested in the issue: pro-immigration businesses and ‘disenchanted’ anti-immigration members of the public.

Also speaking at the event, Margaret Burton from EY said that businesses want a clear, transparent, and fair immigration system that will make it easier for them to attract ‘the best and the brightest’ from abroad.

The current system was too hyper-focused on net migration numbers, which has led to irrational policy, warned Burton. She also criticised the policy of denying visas to foreign workers earning under a certain threshold, saying that the rule takes no account of regional skill levels or needs.

Sir Keir agreed that the net migration camp is a ‘busted policy’, saying the number put forth by the government is “a number that will never be achieved and the public does not believe it. Reduction to a single number is wrong in principle and does not work in practice.” 

The anti-immigration members of the public feel that their ways of life are under threat, said the MP, but they also worry that expressing their concerns will get them labelled as racist.

Sir Keir urged MPs to start listening to people’s concerns over immigration – in spite believing they are right or wrong on the topic – because establishing a dialogue prevents voters from feeling isolated.

Bobby Duffy from Ipsos Mori agreed with the MP’s point on engagement, and warned that if there is no conversation with the public on the issue, public opinion will only change very slowly until the pain of the loss of immigrants increases, risking economic and cultural decline.

He said that currently the population is 25% isolationist, 25% open to immigration, and then there is the sceptical middle. Mr Duffy urged politics to focus “on the sceptical middle. I emphasize sceptical, not neutral.”

Duffy presented research done last year which found that when it came to changing the minds of this part of the population, using facts – known as ‘myth busting’ - were found to be ineffective. He said the anti-immigration stance “is much more emotional than careful understanding of the facts”, and he advised for politicians to “start from where people are, not telling them that they are wrong.”

Rosa Crawford of the TUC, also presented some polling her organisation had done of their members which found that the majority of union members felt the need to limit migrants. Their top two concerns were that immigrants were taking advantage of the benefits system and under cutting wages. This view point, she urged, was symptomatic of a vulnerable work force fearful of the future due to a lack of secure wages.

She said such attitudes could be transformed if there was an investment in workers, focusing on improved working conditions and skills training.

The issue of skills was centric to the solutions proposed by the panellists.

Across the board, business are unanimous in their view that restrictions on freedom of movement will threaten their abilities to find the skilled labour they need, noted Sir Keir.

He went on to assert that the discussion about immigration was really a discussion about the ever-increasing skills gap.

“Why is it that in 2016 companies feel the need to look far and wide for skills? Why is our skills agenda so poor? We need to start in the skills and put an emphasis on technical skills.” Said the MP to much applause.

Ms Burton agreed with the MP and called for the UK’s education and immigration policy to be joined up.  She also advocated for an Australian style immigration system, where caps are determined by the type of work the migrants do.

As a final note, the former shadow immigration minister asked for his party to “be honest about what they expect form migrants. Migrants here now and those who will arrive in the future.”  


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