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Labour Risks Being "Hostage To Fortune" By Attacking Tories On Immigration

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the Conservatives had "lost control" of the UK's borders. (Alamy)

7 min read

As the government struggles to meet its pledge to significantly reduce immigration, Labour has found a new confidence in attacking the Conservatives on an issue where they wouldn't always hope to have the upper hand with voters.

But the tactic is high risk for the party, whose apparent strategy of avoiding their own counter targets in favour of proposing reform of the driving factors that have led to record high immigration is reliant on long-term assumptions that numbers are already likely to drop.

“While I think it’s true that migration numbers are likely to come down, I think voters care more about Labour's plans to address the underlying problems," Josh Simons, director of the influential think tank Labour Together, told PoliticsHome. 

But he warned against any complacency that the figures would shrink naturally: "We don’t want to be hostage to fortune.”

Net migration hit 745,000 in 2022 according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), sparking anger among Tory MPs who view the data as evidence of failing to deliver the government's promise to reduce immigration.

With the government on the back foot, Labour has seen immigration as a useful attack line. At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Keir Starmer said the Conservatives had "lost control of the borders".

"The Prime Minister seems to be the only person on the Tory Benches without his own personal immigration plan,” the Labour leader added. “Clearly, his own side does not have any faith in him. Why should the public?"

Simons felt Labour could afford to be more confident with attempts to undermine the Conservatives on immigration, arguing it gives the party the opportunity to win public trust by showing its longer term strategy on the issue. 

"I think voters really get that a lot of what is being done by the government is not actually fixing the things they care about," he continued.

“[Government] might have identified the right priorities, like strong borders and migration, but they're not actually doing anything about them. Labour also has voters’ concerns at heart – the difference is, they will actually address the underlying problems."

But while Labour is enjoying successfully landing attack lines on government, many voters are still left wondering what Starmer’s party would do differently if they went into government next year, as polls widely predict. 

Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, told PoliticsHome Labour has consistently appeared "anxious" on the topic of immigration, and that it hadn't always opposed government’s measures that had led to 2022's high numbers.

Rishi Sunak
Prime minister Rishi Sunak faced a difficult PMQs on Wednesday after it emerged net migration figures hit record levels in 2022. (Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

"Because of the experience of New Labour – very high immigration – they have struggled to have public confidence on that," Katwala said.

"They're quite divided between the graduate, liberal, pro-immigration vote, and the swing voter that was sort of Labour but Brexit.

"They've got a reasonable challenge to the government on: 'if you'd done more training in the NHS, you'd done more training on funding and social care, maybe you'd be able to have lower numbers' as a long term argument. But it's difficult to spot any changes Boris Johnson made that Labour didn't support."

Labour has yet to outline what its specific policies on migration would be, although the party appears warm to the idea of sector-based visas as a way of boosting growth. 

Last week shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones told the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that while Labour “probably would hope” to reduce immigration, “we’ve talked about a decade of national renewal". 

He added that Labour would aim towards “a couple of hundred thousand a year”, mirroring where the Office for National Statistics expects net migration to settle long term, but that even that “depends on the needs in the economy".

Marley Morris, associate director for migration, trade and communities at the progressive think tank Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), told PoliticsHome that former prime minister David Cameron became a "hostage to fortune" when he set 100,000 net immigration targets, warning the approach had been "tested to death". 

"It was particularly difficult because the UK had too little control over a number of the key factors behind the net migration figures, including most obviously, EU free movement," he said.

"But even since then, the government made a commitment around bringing net migration down in 2019, and we've seen it double compared to the figures in the 2010s.

"Realistically, it would be very unwise for either party to go into the next general election committing to a particular figure".

Labour Together’s Simons agreed Labour should avoid "gimmicks" in favour of a longer term approach to the issue. 

“The big argument Keir Starmer is making is that the British public are fed up with political gimmicks that don’t work," he said. 

“The migration system is a great example. The public are worried about high numbers, not because they hate migrants, but because they are not earning enough, taxes are high, roads are crap and trains don’t run on time.

“The brave thing to do, instead of announcing another ineffective, expensive, cruel, short-term fix is to address the underlying problem — a lack of investment in infrastructure and British workers.”

Simons pointed to economic investment proposals made by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves as examples. 

"You need to boost productivity, and in the medium term, that will mean people get more money in their pockets each month – that's where we lag behind competitor countries,” he said. 

Keir Starmer
Labour leader Keir Starmer pointed out anger among the prime minister's own MPs with the record net migration figures at PMQs on Wednesday. (Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

“That is a clear answer to the question: in the long run, do we think it's a good thing that the British economy depends on low wage, low productivity workers? No, we don't. And therefore, we'll fix that problem. The hard political question, of course, is: how long does that take?”

A Labour source also told PoliticsHome that the party was less interested in targets, and focussed instead on exploring and tackling the structural issues that are leading to immigration being high. 

"We're not saying that we don't want people to come over, but the sheer numbers I think are a bit of a wake up call that there's something going wrong in the way that the government is handling all of this," they said.

"It doesn't feel like the government has a strategy for making work better for employees, and we think that they should be demanding that employers do more on training."

Labour is also keen to close some elements of the current work immigration system, such as offering salaries that are 20 per cent lower to foreign workers for jobs in sectors where there are shortages.

"There's two things: one, it's just grossly unfair that people doing the same job or pays a lower amount, but also, more broadly, it's sort of this kind of sticking plaster for things that are not being solved," a Labour source said. 

The party is also mindful that some cities struggle with the availability of student accommodation due to high numbers of international students – and is not opposed to government suggestions to limit the number of dependents they can bring with them.

"In some places where it's a university in a fairly small city or town that does then put pressure on things," the Labour source added. 

"Are the universities contributing enough? Are they building enough student homes?”

But there is concern among some Labour MPs that the party's messaging is "woolly" on immigration – in part due to how politically toxic the topic has become.

"The general view is that people think they don't want to talk about it," one MP said. 

"Not necessarily because they're anti-migrant, but because they're worried about the press [saying Labour will] take us back into the EU and let freedom of movement come back, and open the borders."

The MP, who sits on the left of the party, was critical of what they described as "populist" rhetoric used by Starmer this week.

"They'll talk about stopping the boats, or not changing certain things the Tories are going to do – we don't seem to have a plan within ourselves," they continued.

“It's really difficult to communicate to those that have concerns about migrant rights. And that's a worry, because those that have concerns about migrant rights make up a huge part of our base. And they're angry."

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