23 May 2024

Will this really be an immigration election?


Could this be an immigration election? The issue has hit the headlines the morning after Rishi Sunak announced the July 4th date for the general election. The final statistics of this parliament show net migration at 685,000, more than double the level that it was four years ago, when the Conservatives said that they would bring the numbers down.

So the issue that some Conservative strategists still think of as a trump card could prove as much a liability as an asset in the 2024 campaign.

Voters have different views about the choices they want governments to make on immigration – and also how much of a priority they give to it. It is a top three issue for a quarter of the public, including four out of ten Conservative voters. It is the biggest priority of those intending to vote Reform. But immigration is only the ninth priority for the larger group of Labour voters: just 14% say it is one of their top three issues, way behind the economy and the NHS, with housing, education, inequality and climate change ranking higher.

Because there is a lag effect in their timing, today’s net migration statistics do not yet capture changes in immigration policy that were announced last December. Immigration is now falling this year, having hit its all-time peak in 2022. The drop is partly due to circumstance, as one-off surges from Ukraine and Hong Kong subside; and partly through policy choices, particularly on dependents’ visas for those studying in the UK or working in care homes.

Those falls in visas issued this year will not be confirmed in the official statistics until this time next year. Net migration may well come down moderately in November’s figures, reporting on the twelve months to June 2024. By this time next year, the net migration figures are likely to be around 350,000 a year – much closer to the long-term average of around a quarter of a million over the last 25 years under both New Labour and the Conservatives.

So the government can point out that immigration is now falling. But tripling net migration to a peak level of 750,000 in 2022, before putting it back on track to just over half of that level, is unlikely to bring many plaudits from those who wanted reductions.

Conservative governments had been trying to halve net migration, unsuccessfully, for almost a decade until Boris Johnson scrapped that ‘tens of thousands’ target. There has been backbench pressure from former ministers Robert Jenrick and Suella Braverman to bring it back – but proposing the same target the Conservatives first set themselves, after fourteen years in office, may simply remind voters of the failure to achieve it. Neither Johnson, Truss or Sunak wanted to make the hard choices – to reduce visas for health, social care or international students – that would be necessary to attempt it.

Labour says that current levels of net migration are too high, without saying what level the party would aim for. It has long-term plans to rebalance training and migration in the NHS but supports the post-study work visa for international graduates and has no proposals to significantly restrict visas beyond those announced by the government.

The lesson of the last decade is that government attempts to declare the level of immigration they want in five years time, without knowing either the economic conditions at home or the geopolitical picture abroad, have proved deeply unsuccessful. As we and others have proposed, the sensible alternative would be a Budget-style annual immigration report, detailing the flows and impacts of the previous year and the government’s projections, targets and proposals for the next.

Introducing such democratic accountability could help to make immigration a more ‘normal’ issue and less of a hot potato. The parties and their supporters may disagree on the choices about immigration levels and how to balance the pressures and gains of immigration – but more scrutiny to track their performance should be common ground.

The bigger campaign clash may be over the Rwanda policy. The Conservatives believe the idea of removals to Africa can still be a political dividing line in their favour – though the timing of the general election was surely a vote of no confidence in the Rwanda plan actually working as a deterrent. A July election avoids finding out if sending the first plane to Rwanda would stop the boats in August and September, when arrivals would be almost certain to outstrip removals by a factor of ten to one.

Both parties are trying to duck the logical implications of their competing asylum agendas.

Whether or not a few dozen people do go to Rwanda just ahead of the election, or a few hundred would be sent to Rwanda if the Conservatives were re-elected, both parties would have to admit into the system the 60,000 people who have claimed asylum this year, in the vast majority of cases where there is no realistic prospect of imminent removal to Rwanda or anywhere else.

The Conservatives have legislated against that principle but have no practical or lawful alternative. So the soundbites swapped by both parties about their opponents’ ‘amnesties’ are largely rhetorical. Labour opposes the Rwanda plan as a gimmick, but its proposals to reorganise border security would need to be combined with negotiations with France in order to be a fully-fledged alternative plan to restore control to the Channel.

Election campaigns can create pressure for symbolic gesture politics and volatile, short-term policy changes on immigration. But promises that cannot be kept corrode trust. The challenge for the next parliament is how to introduce a more sustainable approach to the choices that governments make. Getting that right could help find the right blend of compassion and control on asylum, and secure public confidence in how the pressures and gains of migration can be managed.

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Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future

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