24 May 2024

Make no mistake, migration will be a key electoral battleground

By Guy Dampier

What is this election about? The Prime Minister’s campaign video set it out: amidst a moody cacophony of crises – the Covid pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hamas’ attack on Israel –he heads to the door of Number 10, to tell the people that his actions have won Britain economic stability, a stability which must be protected through a general election. 

Only after about a minute does the topic of immigration pop up, with a short reference to the Rwanda Plan. Just after that, the Prime Minister mentioned his plan to end smoking for young people, which was shelved yesterday. Does that mean it doesn’t really matter?

Polling suggests otherwise. Immigration has consistently been in the three most important issues to British voters, only being edged out over the last few years by inflation. So while it may not be the main priority this election, it clearly is one of the biggest priorities for voters.

That shouldn’t be surprising, as the debate preceding the announcement of the election was over the Graduate visa, which allows international students to work here for two years after finishing their studies, which has been accused of turning universities into visa mills. Despite robust criticism of the visa, proposals to remove it or restrict it to the top universities were watered down and it was announced instead that students would only be required to take an English test. 

The Graduate visa is one of several changes since the Conservatives’ 2019 election victory which have super-charged immigration. The introduction of a visa for social care workers, lax rules about dependents and refugee routes for people from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong have led to net migration of over 2m people this Parliament. For context, in the 25 years before 1998, net migration was only 68,000. 

These are record figures, even by the high levels of immigration we’ve had since 1997. They are beginning to reduce, due to government restrictions and the bulk of the refugees on the humanitarian visas having already come, but are still double the regular pre-2019 figures. 

Although there has been much justified criticism of the government for promising to reduce numbers in their 2019 manifesto while actually increasing them, it isn’t true to say that the Conservatives always failed to control migration. Back in the heady days of the Coalition government, they nearly got net migration to 150,000, the lowest level since the year 2000.

During the Thatcher and Major years, controls on immigration were strong enough that it wasn’t even an issue. It’s only their adoption of misguided Blairite ideas about the economic necessity of immigration which has turned one of their core issues into an electoral vulnerability.

Indeed, if the government wanted to then it could achieve similar results quite fast. After all, the visa for social care workers was only introduced in the last few years, the huge number of international students is a result of the government’s International Education Strategy, and we only need to import foreign health workers (and their dependents) because we don’t train or retain enough doctors and nurses domestically. 

There are vested interests who will argue against this, but there’s no reason why we have to suppress the wages of native care workers or allow universities to effectively sell work visas to paper over their broken financial model. Much better to let the free market act as intended within a strong national framework. Not least when there is mounting evidence that mass immigration is bad for the economy, meaning that taxpayers are effectively being asked to subsidise the failing business models and practices of these industries.

Voters are correct to care about immigration then. Labour recognise the strength of that concern, which is why, despite their own instincts, they’re happy to talk tough on stopping the boats. Their plans are unlikely to work but they know from experience how vulnerable they are on immigration. Focusing on the evils of people smugglers makes them look firm enough on the subject while they try their best to avoid the question of legal immigration.

Over a quarter of a century on from the start of the mass immigration experiment, it is clear that the current system is not fit for purpose. Repeated promises in elections have crumbled in government, creating a yawning trust deficit between voters and the political class. Plans for an annual migration ‘budget’ make a lot more sense because they create the opportunity for better oversight and greater flexibility. 

However, it is crucial that they include an annual cap or a similar mechanism. One reason why immigration frequently gets out of control is that routes often have no limits. Predictions that access to free movement to Britain for Poles and Romanians would only lead to a few tens of thousands of immigrants utterly under-estimated the reality, with over 820,000 Poles and 550,000 Romanians recorded as living in Britain by 2021. Had Britain staggered entry with caps, as other European nations did, then the shock would not have been so big.

Another crucial promise should be that any such budget should involve greater transparency. In recent years, Britain has actually decreased the amount of some types of data available. This should be reversed and a much more joined-up approach taken, with more sharing of data between departments. That would allow for the sort of granular calculations of the costs and benefits of immigration that Holland and Denmark have been able to produce. 

We should also be wary of any retreat from the Rwanda Plan. The government has said that no flights will take off before the election and Labour have committed to ending it if they win. This would be deeply premature. Some migrants have already fled Britain for Ireland, citing the fear of being sent to Rwanda, which suggests it does have a deterrent effect. It is also that rarest of things: a British policy innovation which our partners are interested in. So far, 19 European countries are interested in copying our offshoring plan. Closing it down would risk us falling out of step with our allies.

It is far more pragmatic than accepting that Britain will have to process tens or hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants every year, with most likely to win asylum or at least not to be deported. Labour fumbling around that issue has already led them to give the impression they’ll offer an amnesty, which would incentivise more dangerous Channel crossings. 

So even if the main parties don’t want this to be an immigration election, it will remain a key battleground. The Conservatives should want to recover a core strength of their offer, Labour know they need to guard their flank, and Reform are determined to foreground it.

If we want to control our borders, reduce deaths in the Channel or on British streets and dial down the intensity of the debate, then the parties need to do more than assuage voters. They need to listen to them and implement a system which can control and reduce immigration.

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Guy Dampier is a Senior Researcher at the Legatum Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.