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Australia’s immigration lessons for Labour Starmer needs to launch a defence of borders

The Tories have lost control (SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Tories have lost control (SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)


November 16, 2022   4 mins

“Stop the boats!” With that three-word slogan, Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Australian Liberal Party systematically attacked the Labor governments of my boss Julia Gillard and her predecessor and successor Kevin Rudd. The arrival of boats from Indonesia carrying refugees and asylum seekers were routinely announced by government and just as regularly met with Abbott’s demand. Like many of the best political slogans, it was as unfair as it was brutally effective: it became an emblem of the dysfunction of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments.

The small boats coming in increasing numbers across the Channel could similarly become the image of the collapse of the authority of Rishi Sunak’s government — if Keir Starmer is willing to learn lessons from Australia, and in particular Tony Abbott’s relentless assaults.

Politics is a contact sport. Effective oppositions put their opponents in the wrong — and keep them there by returning to the attack again and again. This normally starts with framing. Australian Liberal Prime Minister John Howard defined the debate about refugees when he said that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. Australian Labor never found a way to make the humanitarian needs of refugees sound appealing — it just sounded like open borders.

There is a Maslowian hierarchy to the demands voters make of politicians. At the bottom is security, in the middle is competence and delivery of public services — and it is only when these fulfilled that voters are willing to listen to political parties’ visions of the future. Put bluntly, the most effective attack the Labour frontbench can make on Rishi Sunak’s government is to say again and again that the Tories have lost control of our borders.

This is not a time for subtlety; whatever “Stop the boats!” lacks in elegance, it gains in punchiness. This is the second lesson that Starmer needs to learn from Tony Abbott — winning from opposition isn’t pretty, but it can be simple. Two or three-word slogans can sum up an attack. They should simplify more detailed or complex arguments rather than be simplistic, but they must be instantly understandable.

It’s fortunate, then, that the solution to tackling the small boats crisis is relatively straightforward. Shift processing from the UK to France, so asylum seekers don’t need to risk the crossing. Speed up the processing of claims, which will lead to quick deportations and cut the credibility of the people smugglers. At the same time, launch a war of intelligence and policing against these gangs, with the support of the governments of the countries they operate from and through. This last part is particularly difficult for the Conservative government to achieve with France because of the suspicion, and at times hostility, their ministers and MPs have shown to us since Brexit. Like most good plans, this will take time to arrange, so Labour needs a clear strap-line.

The template Tony Abbott successfully copied was Michael Howard’s contract with the country in the 2005 UK general election: “More police. Cleaner hospitals. Lower taxes. School discipline. Lower immigration.” Few voters read political manifestos. When they complain in focus groups that they don’t know enough about Labour’s policies, they don’t mean they would like to read a 200-page manifesto. What they want is the “retail offer” — the pledges that set out simply and clearly the difference that Labour will make for them directly and personally. What does Labour mean for the NHS? Less waiting. And for crime? More police. For schools? Smaller classes. Voters need to know why Labour is the answer — and to which questions.

Since Labour conference, Starmer’s team have brought a sharpness to his language and performance. This is largely thanks to the recently appointed speechwriter Alan Lockey, the return to frontline politics of experienced Blair strategist Peter Hyman, and the newly promoted Executive Director of Policy Stuart Ingham (who is probably the most important political figure you’ve never heard of). Their success shows the importance of having competent wordsmiths on the books. A similar approach needs to turn the insights of Starmer’s Director of Strategy Deborah Mattinson’s research into persuasive soundbites that are repeated again, and again, and again.

This is where the final thing on Starmer’s shopping list comes in: a frontbench of committed campaigners who are convincing message carriers. If there were an inspectorate for political communication, there would clearly be a number of Labour frontbenchers in special measures. Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed, for one, seems to have vanished without trace in his portfolio. And at DDCMS, Lucy Powell has been unable to punish the Government for failing to protect children by weakening or even failing to pass the Online Safety Bill. Opposition is never a time to carry passengers; the task is now to present Labour as an alternative government. According to Sir John Curtice, Labour’s regular poll leads mean that a clear majority is now a real prospect.

It’s time, then, for Starmer to pick the team who will be his first Cabinet after he wins the next election. He will never be stronger than he is now. Labour regularly polls around 50% — that means one in two voters you meet are thinking of voting Labour. The Shadow Cabinet needs to be his choice of the talent that can seal the deal with the voters. Experienced Labour hands, veterans of the New Labour days, note that Starmer campaigns best with strong women politicians; he looks and sounds more relaxed and connects with the public more deeply. So, he needs to be out and about with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner. They are his Gordon Brown and John Prescott, and he should remember how well surrounding himself with very strong and very different politicians worked for Tony Blair. Starmer now has talented female frontbenchers such as former leadership contender Liz Kendall, who has returned from maternity leave, and Merseyside campaigner Alison McGovern. Both would strengthen the Shadow Cabinet by replacing stale, male, and pale underperformers.

Hunger for office is the key. Oppositions can tear down a government, but they need to get up every day wanting to do that. Starmer is spoiled for targets. If it’s not energy prices driving up the cost of living, it’s higher interest rates raising mortgage repayments. If it’s not NHS waiting lists lengthening, it’s the crime rate rising and police detection falling. And yet, too often the government successfully projects the narrative that they are grappling with events out of their control, when everything going wrong is the consequence of a decision made by one of the five Tory Prime Ministers over the last six years. If he’s going to win, Starmer needs to put down his toy gun and show the bludgeoning skills of successful opposition.


John McTernan is a British political strategist and former advisor to Tony Blair.

johnmcternan

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Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago

As the author would know, one of the reasons Gillard was hopeless was that nobody believed her because it appeared that she kept repeating manufactured soundbites that even she didn’t believe.

There needs to be some sincerity and coherence behind the soundbite. In Australia, everyone knew that Abbott (and present conservative leader Dutton) were hard men who would be quite capable of pushing those asylum seekers back with their bare hands. Can Starmer present himself as trustworthy, with or without new ‘messages’?

Last edited 1 year ago by Russell Hamilton
Jimmy Snooks
Jimmy Snooks
1 year ago

Frankly, this article is ridiculous.
Everyone knows Starmer would be incapable of stopping the boats. Most of his party doesn’t want to stop them, much less know how to implement the measures required to do so.
If McTernan is either having a laugh or he is truly deluded.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jimmy Snooks
polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

I do not see the point of this. By all means batter the Tories to death with sound bites, but Starmer has no policies with which to solve the problems that the sound bites highlight. He will just spend four or five years being as ineffective as the current lot. Not much of an ambition is it?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

“Experienced Labour hands, veterans of the New Labour days, note that Starmer campaigns best with strong women politicians”

And yet he still can’t say what a woman is. This wagon is finally rolling down hill faster and faster, and the populist media will turn it into a bigger issue that could destroy him.

Graeme Kemp
Graeme Kemp
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Well quite….

Josh Woods
Josh Woods
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Ian, remember that the author is a close associate of Keir’s master Tony Blair, and still appears to be a fanatical adherent of his ways. He is welcome to express himself on UnHerd, but clock is badly broken, so his ideas are not that surprising coming from him.

Last edited 1 year ago by Josh Woods
Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

I agree. It is very easy for Labour to appear popular when the Tories are drowning. But when you examine their policies and credos Labour are horribly exposed. They are the party of the failing public sector and NHS and of the increasingly militant trade unions. All their policies point to the need to SPEND spend spend on their people. They were the party of hard lockdown and cannot mask their distaste for the private sector and wealth creation. So how will the party of windfallers and class war warriors and tax increase generate the wealth we need?? The party of open borders and mass migration will smash the human rights legal scam over illegal Dover crossings?? Really?? Beneath Starmer and Rachel Labour remain a seething rabble of thick identitarian corbyny yobbos clinging to toxic divisive ideas. How on earth would this Labour Party resolve the multiple crises so many of which are rooted in the Blairite revolution?? There is nothing there!!!!

Frances McMahon
Frances McMahon
1 year ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Sounds like you think the present Gov is handling things well. Perhaps you could also subject them to your analysis.

D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Why would anybody believe Starmer if he said ‘Stop the boats’?
Tony Abbott he ain’t. He would replace the so-called ‘perilous’ crossings with organised ferry trips from Calais to Folkestone.
He’d still have the problem of how to house, feed, and doctor tens of thousands of people, mostly young men.
Then it would be hundreds of thousands. When would he say ‘enough’? How would he enforce ‘enough’? Those are the questions he won’t be asked.

Last edited 1 year ago by D Glover
Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

Daily Eurostar from the Gare du Nord.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

The author is right that this is the key issue that will decide the election. The problem is that his solution – processing claims from an immigration centre in France – is clearly, and demonstrably, inadequate. If you refused asylum to someone in France, they would just get in a boat and head for Kent. If they knew they would fail the asylum test, they would bypass the immigration hub altogether and just get in a boat.
The only solution is a rule that says if you arrive by an irregular route, you will never get to stay. You will be deported to your own country or where that is impossible, to a safe third country (like Rwanda).
And then you need to back it up with action. Offshore detention until the deportation arrangements have been made.
The problem is that this leads to the UK breaking some international agreements that we have signed up to. Breaking them – and doing so through legislation – requires political courage that it is unlikely the Tories possess. But it is unthinkable that Labour could do so.
If the Tories were smarter, they would tie this into a further story about Britain not taking orders from foreign governments or foreign lawyers and re-assemble the 2019 coalition. But is Rishi that smart and that brave?

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

I very much doubt it is within the legal framework most of our politicians are committed to that it is ‘simple’ or even possible to solve this issue in the way McTiernan indicates. Plus, there is not a tiny part of Labour’s current attitudes, oozing with ‘compassion’, that in any way considers this as a real problem. All these boat people are probably assets to the country anyway, in their view.

Then there is the unfortunate political fact that the Tories are likely to be destroyed at the next election, come what may, and that Labour has no reason at all to risk opening up a huge amount of rancour in its own ranks by highlighting this issue.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

With respect I would somewhat dispute your point about Labour views on migration.
Much has been made of how UKIP was able to, effectively, pull the Conservative Party in its direction over the last decade by playing on Conservative divides and offering an alternative to Conservative voters. But far less has been made about Labour’s divides and vulnerabilities on immigration. Those divides are there – they’ve just not been tested. I can not believe that all those classically Labour seats that voted to leave the EU did not have concerns about immigration in mind. The new ‘challenger parties’ (for want of a better term) aren’t really thinking in terms of Labour/Conservative targets in the way UKIP effectively aimed towards primarily (but not exclusively) the Conservatives.
A big part of the reason that Labour, ‘rancour,’ on this has not come to the forefront is that they are in opposition. Fair enough. But at least the Conservatives have confronted their divides and faced the pressures of challenger parties. For Labour it’s really just festered, and certainly McTernan’s article, at best, glosses over it. Indeed, what would Labour’s manifesto say on immigration. As far as I can see Starmer has talked about a ‘points based system’ (whatever that means) but not much else. There’s been no rancour because there’s been no pressure to have rancour.
Don’t get me wrong here – Labour’s leadership is undoubtedly very pro immigration. And, of course there could be a ‘challenger party’ to Labour that is basically the Woke Party that would want open borders. The point I’m getting at is that because of a combination of opposition, lack of vocal policy and ducking the issue Labour just not had to have immigration out with their classic voters yet where the Conservatives had, at least to some extent.
What would I think bring a Labour/Conservative divide on immigration to a head is were the Conservatives to advocate leaving the ECHR. I don’t see how Starmer could duck that one.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
1 year ago

It’s puzzling that it has taken so long for someone in the UK to ask why don’t we do what they did in Australia?
I guess the salient difference is the fact that Australia is a lot further away from Indonesia than England is from France. It’s much simpler to turn around ricketty fishing hulks which are trying to bobble all the way from Java to Christmas Island (344 km) than it is to stop heaps of little boats darting across the Channel.
The boats issue is a mill stone for Australian Labor. When Howard got booted in 2007 there were next to no boats coming. Then Rudd changed the rules and lots of boats came. Abbott said “we’ll stop the boats” to which Labour sneered “you’re talking rubbish.” Then Abbott got in and stopped the boats. Albanese hasn’t made the same mistake Rudd made.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

It’s not just the greater distance involved in the Australian example. The problem in the Channel is that there are no international waters between us and France. Our Border Force vessels cannot enter French territorial waters and once the boats are in UK territorial waters they are our problem.
Try and turn the boats back? The occupants just jump overboard. Do we leave them to drown? Obviously not. Once they are rescued they are on a UK Government vessel in UK waters. Game, set and match.
Only French cooperation to stop the boats setting off can resolve this issue.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Why on earth would France want to help us?

They can’t wait to be rid of these people, and if they make it from the Italian border to the Channel coast, c’est la vie!

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

I would

Geraldine Kelley
Geraldine Kelley
1 year ago

It wouldn’t take many to drive home the point and we owe the illegals nothing.

Brian Burnell
Brian Burnell
1 year ago

No!
Britain can change its rules on where the border lies. We did so when we changed our limit on territorial waters from the generally accepted limit of three miles to the current 12 miles. We could if we wished change the limit back to where it was at 3 miles. leaving a stretch of the Channel in international waters. That would change the game.
Then, we could also charge those “rescuing” migrants with aiding and abetting criminal activity and cancel their charitable status unless they could prove to a court that the people “rescued” were in genuine need of rescue. Responding to a mobile phone call from the point of embarkation simply would not cut it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brian Burnell
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Burnell

Excellent comment, that’s really insightful

Unherd Reader
Unherd Reader
1 year ago
Reply to  Brian Burnell

Giving up territorial waters is not feasible as a political outcome – would be seen as surrender. You can’t say “it’s just water, nobody cares” judging from how fishing disputes occupy political time and attention totally disproportionate to fishing’s share of the economy. Even if you did create international waters, it wouldn’t “solve” the issue since many boats would still make it through to UK waters and you’d have the same problems – which would make the decision to surrender UK territory even more toxic.

So you’d need to think carefully how to use the international waters to maximum advantage to make them worthwhile, but they aren’t a free-for-all where no law applies – you can’t send the RAF to bomb the boats, for example. Boats sinking there still need rescuing. And rescuers, which will likely include UK government vessels, will need to dock somewhere – how long could the government hold the line that we won’t let them dock in the UK if France says we won’t have them either?

Charging lifeboat volunteers with aiding and abetting would also be politically explosive. And looking at how courts (not just judges but also juries) tend to apply the law, very unlikely to end in a criminal conviction. On an issue where the public favour “doing something” about the boats, a policy of surrendering UK territory, diplomatic stand-offs about where rescuers can dock and sticking lifeboat crew in the dock so that jurors can refuse to convict them is surely going to stretch the limits of that support. Particularly if it doesn’t actually stem the flow – plenty of boats get more than half way, and smugglers can always switch to more powerful boats if needed. You can make a policy that sounds super-tough, but it’s got to survive years of pressure from lily-livered do-gooders in the media, academia, legal activists and so on. The only hope it has of lasting is if it demonstrably attains its stated objectives, which when it comes to stopping small boats across a wide but narrow channel is inevitably hard to do. That suggests to me that the only serious solution is going to be one that challenges the logic of smuggling – the incentives for wanting to cross in the first place – rather than just trying to make the crossing more difficult.

Last edited 1 year ago by Unherd Reader
Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
1 year ago

Is John McTernan having a laugh, or does he honestly believe the general voter will belive anything said by Kneel Starmer, the committed Corbyn supporter, the DPP director who curiously knew nothing about Savile or the the child rape gangs, the bloke whose “opposition” to Lunatic Tory Covid strategy was limited to cries for “SoonerStricterHarderLonger”?

No sensible person would imagine Starmer a suitable candidate for a bog attendant.

Even when pitched against the most useless and least “conservative” government ever.

Guy Pigache
Guy Pigache
1 year ago

But could Labour agree amongst themselves to day Stop The Boats? Voters may not think the Tories have done a good job handling the small boat crisis but will they believe Labour can do a better job?

Unherd Reader
Unherd Reader
1 year ago

If you write that the solution to a problem is “relatively straightforward” it undermines your point completely if you then state a completely unworkable non-solution that Labour wouldn’t commit to anyway! Here’s a hint for making up any policies that deal with people: people won’t always do the thing you want or expect them to do just because you set a policy based on how you think they “should” behave. If you try to change their incentives, don’t be surprised if their behaviour changes too in ways that aren’t compliant with your original intentions.
“Shift processing from the UK to France, so asylum seekers don’t need to risk the crossing”: for those who know their claims are very likely to be accepted (most Syrians for example) this is an incentive, and it’s true Ukrainians who did get given alternative options didn’t use the boats or lorries. But note that crossing the Med and getting to N. France is expensive and risky in its own right and still relies on networks of people smugglers, so don’t fool yourself that this would be a clean, virtuous system, or that the people who use it aren’t taking some nasty risks. By shifting the incentives to make the UK an even more attractive destination for migrants with high chances of an asylum claim, you’ll actually draw even more migrants to N. France (something people smugglers will do well out of elsewhere on the route) and risk overwhelming the new system you just set up. Moreover, why would you expect people whose claim is likely to be turned down (Albanians, Nigerians and so on) to meekly comply with your requirement to get processed in France? Or the large numbers you’ve drawn in who turn up then get turned down to just accept the decision, when they can already see the promised land across the Channel?
You can’t force all the processing to happen in France because, unless you want the UK to withdraw from its obligations under international law (not necessarily the most stupid idea but certainly not one that Labour will buy into) you still have to process people who turn up in England too. And there are benefits to migrants in having crossed the border first – many are given permission to remain despite their asylum application failing since it is deemed unsafe to send them back, and those who have lost or destroyed their identity papers are very hard to deport anyway. The demand for crossings will still be strong unless you remove these incentives. Besides which, and contrary to all this focus on “processing”, not everyone wants to go through “the system” anyway – once you’re across, you can fairly safely disappear into community networks, working cash in hand, rather than sit around waiting to be rejected and deported.
Partly for reasons given above, faster processing will not magically “lead to quick deportations” – it stretches credulity to think Labour would abolish the appeals process which drags out deportation long beyond the original processing is done, and it still doesn’t resolve the issue of people who (surprise surprise!) don’t just make it as easy as possible for the government to deport them. Not all countries make it easy to deport their (suspected but not always with paperwork to prove it) citizens back to them either.
The wishful thinking culminates with “launch a war of intelligence and policing against these gangs, with the support of the governments of the countries they operate from and through.” A few hours ago I discovered that not all drugs used in the UK were produced here, and international criminals are involved in smuggling networks! I’ve had a brilliant and original idea – let’s just have an intelligence and policing War on Drugs launched internationally, including in the narcostates the drugs are coming from, and it will be “relatively straightforward” to end the drugs trade very quickly! Why has no genius tried this before?
The truth is there’s a lot of stuff that’s already happening, including a surprising amount of cooperation with France. But boats are small, the crossing is narrow, the Kurdish boat-smuggling network has strong expertise based on the Greek crossings, and there are a lot of beaches to launch from, so this isn’t as technically straightforward to deal with as the Australian migrant boats were. If the UK government did actually start cooperating with the Assad regime to stem the flow of migrants from Syria, the author of this piece would be up in arms at his “relatively straightforward solution” being followed. Meanwhile some of the cooperation deals between Europe and key transit states like Libya and Turkey, made in order to stem the flow, are morally in the very dark shades of grey already. Perhaps we need to go even darker. We might even tell ourselves that such dubious deals are for the greater good, not just domestic political consumption, if it prevents migrants drowning at sea. But the idea that there is a simple, clean, morally pure and technically straightforward solution to the Channel boats is bunkum.
By the way, there is a one quick fix to stop the boats, if you really want to, and provided optics are all you care about. Just end the heavy security checks, fines for unaware drivers etc on the Channel lorry crossings. It’s only since those have tightened that the boats became the cheaper, preferred options. Go back to the good old days of dozens of migrants in the back of a lorry, and there’ll be no more distressing footage of people drowning. Sure some migrants might suffocate but the media don’t tend to televise them doing so – make the security checks light enough and it would be easy for them to pick a safer kind of lorry, one where they can open the sides a little for air. Of course some people will then say there is a “relatively straightforward solution” to the lorry migrants by using CO2 detectors etc, but we have been down that route of technical solutions before. Change the incentives for how people cross and it turns out they start crossing in different ways. You really don’t want them to cross at all? Then change the incentives for what happens when they get here. But I don’t think the author or the Labour Party would have any serious appetite for that at all.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

if you arrive by an irregular route, you will never get to stay

(quoted from Matt M)
That is the key, and is essentially what Australian policy was under Howard and has been since Abbott. Good fences make good neighbours.
Throughout the Howard and Abbott leaderships, they continued to resettle large numbers of refugees, almost all processed overseas before arrival.
Australia is an immigrant country.
More than half of the population is descended from at least one person who arrived in the last 50 years. One quarter were born overseas themselves.
ï»żImmigration itself is not unpopular – uncontrolled immigration is.
Deliberately confusing illegal immigrants, “irregular” if you don’t wish to be ostracised by the “nobody is illegal” crowd, with regular immigration and processing of refugee claims, and just lumping all together as “immigrants” is a pernicious trick of the far left that the media and the Labour Party do little to distance themselves from.

Richard North
Richard North
1 year ago

The advantage Abbott had with his narrative is that he meant it. Does ANYONE believe Labour means it?

Graham Thorpe
Graham Thorpe
1 year ago

I’m sorry but (sadly) this is nonsense. The Labour party do not WANT to “stop the boats”. This whole article is based on a totally false premise that Labour would do anything to win an election and that such a slogan would do it. Of course it would do it… but that’s not the point. They do not want that as their policy. Thank you.

Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
1 year ago

If the Tories can’t defend the borders, how on earth can you expect Labour to do so?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

“What does Labour mean for the NHS? Less waiting. And for crime? More police. For schools? Smaller classes. Voters need to know why Labour is the answer — and to which questions.”
They might also need to know how Labour is going to achieve these simple solutions to very complex problems, which have eluded all other governments of the last twenty years. The whole issue with democracy is political parties making promises they can’t possibly fulfill.
This article reeks of the spin doctor’s creed of reducing all messaging to no more than three words (stay home, help the NHS, save lives) because the plebs are incapable of understanding anything else.

Last edited 1 year ago by Rocky Martiano
Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

I am very boring because I always ask the same question. Do young people want to stop the boats?

The future is not about the thoughts of reactionary old men but IS about the ideas of the young.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

This year’s idealistic young man is next year’s reactionary old man, particularly when the economy tanks and social cohesion collapses. There is no point is asking the same boring question, Chris, and expecting a different answer.

D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

But Chris has a point. The millennium generation vote grows as the boomer vote declines. If a Labour government extended the vote to 16-year-olds that would accelerate the process.
Young people are taught that we’re responsible for the plight of the world’s people. Quite how we’re responsible for the state of Albania is too hard to fathom.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago

Valid points, all – but nobody wants Blair back.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Nice idea, John, but wouldn’t French cooperation be needed to process them in France?
Even with this seaborne “invasion” we get fewer asylum applications each year than most European countries, including France. It’s a continent-wide problem.

D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago

It wasn’t a problem for Poland last August when Belarus tried to push thousands of refugees across their shared border. Poland built a barbed wire fence and stationed troops and policemen with batons and riot shields.
The refugees threw things, but the Poles held the line.
In 1940 the beaches of the south coast of England were covered in barbed wire and dragons’ teeth too.

Last edited 1 year ago by D Glover
Unherd Reader
Unherd Reader
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

Barbed wire and dragons teeth wouldn’t have stopped boats landing. They would have made it harder to get soldiers and equipment up the beach under fire. But if the boat contains people whose objective was to get to this side of the Channel, they have already “won” once they landed – and nobody with any chance of political office is proposing we shoot at them. Recall that Germany had no problem getting fast boats near to the English coastline as late as 1944 (see Allied losses during Exercise Tiger) despite every effort being made to stop them – small boats launched from a wide range of coast across a narrow Channel are going to be challenging to intercept even with military levels of sophistication. Fortified beaches are especially pointless if a boat only needs to make it most of the way across before declaring it is sinking and needs rescue.

With a land border you can “hold the line” by stopping people coming over to your side using a physical barrier, and shoving them back if they try to storm through a gate. It’s not a great analogy for a border that’s water. Some boats will always get through, likely enough to remain an attractive option, and smugglers can switch to more powerful boats to overcome any shifts in advantage due to improved counter-measures. No matter what you put on the beach, once someone is here, they’re here. You can’t just “push them back through a gate” like Poland did so they revert to being France’s problem. You’d have to deport them back to France and France can say “non” to that.

You might try to solve the “only need to get half-way across” problem by changing the law to say such seafarers must be left to drown. Which in turn would require changing swathes of other laws – even given how little the public dislike the boat crossings, probably politically infeasible.

The idea that there’s an easy military-style solution to this issue strikes me as unrealistic as the author’s original contention that there’s an easy diplomatic solution. In reply to Dougie’s point – it’s possible France would agree for processing there, it would pull more migrants towards N. France but if they felt its net effect would be to remove more migrants from France it could be attractive to them. But migrants would also need to agree to be processed there – the advantage of getting processed on the UK side is that even if their asylum claim fails, they may already have entered the black economy or they may be given leave to remain due to it being deemed unsafe to send them back despite a failed claim. So the boats would still get plenty of customers.

Ultimately the advantage lies so much with the boats – at least now that we have tightened security at the more land-style borders, where the lorries cross – that I can only imagine a “solution” being one that changes the incentives of the migrants in wanting to come here in the first place. This was at least the internal logic of the Rwanda plan, which is similar in spirit to the Australian idea of would-be migrants being sent to Pacific countries instead. Whether that plan would be capable of implementation at sufficient scale to shift migrant incentives I’m not sure, but the logic was sounder than “stick obstacles on the beaches”.

D Glover
D Glover
1 year ago
Reply to  Unherd Reader

You make a lot of well argued points, and I thank you.
Your conclusion though, is essentially despairing. There isn’t much we can do to reduce the pull factor.
Dismantle the welfare state? Introduce compulsory ID cards?

Unherd Reader
Unherd Reader
1 year ago
Reply to  D Glover

Remember that the number of people coming illicitly via lorry and small boat is much lower than those whose path to life in the UK was simply to overstay their visas – Migration Watch put that number at 91,863 last year, while even “neutral” sources note that researchers primarily attribute illegal migration to the overstay route eg https://fullfact.org/immigration/how-many-people-overstay-visas/ (article from 2017 so predates the big rise in both boats and overstaying but shows how this has been a long-term problem).
So we need to think carefully what the issue of primary concern is. Certainly the optics of boat crossings are terrible politically, suggesting a complete loss of control over borders – ironically this is punishing the government for a rare moment of technical efficiency and effective cooperation with France, in raising the security measures at lorry crossings to such a high standard that migrants and smugglers now find boats the cheaper option with the higher probability of success. If the same people arrived on the backs of lorries as in the past, its lower visibility would have resulted in a less acute sense of failure and crisis. Aside from the matter of appearances, we still might want to focus on boat crossings over other forms of illegal migration due to concern for the safety of migrants at sea and a dislike of their reliance on serious organised criminals. But I’ll acknowledge optics certainly form part of the political equation and therefore the political feasibility of any policy response.
We all need to recognise that technical counter-measures against boats only get us so far in addressing the Channel crossings – smugglers sell a variety of services, across ferries, tunnel and small boats, including ‘VIP’ options at higher expense but marketed as having greater probability of success (eg a colluding driver) and attempts to disrupt this market, as happened with the lorries, are partly compensated by shifts in its equilibrium, towards alternatives modes, routes and the cost of the packages. I’m not opposed to taking further action, for example smugglers do have to pass contact details about so increased policing and intelligence resources should be able to send a few more to prison, but as with the drug trade, more will pop up provided the market remains profitable. You can reasonably expect increased counter-measures to raise prices and reduce numbers, but a complete end to the crossings looks as fanciful as final victory in the War on Drugs. But I especially want to reiterate that such counter-measures do nothing about visa overstaying – indeed if we make it harder and more expensive for Albanians to come by small boat, we make it more worth their while to pay for whatever fake paperwork will get them a UK visa.
Thinking about the pull factors is not a counsel of despair, it also involves switching an eye away from the visible issue (boats) towards the bigger picture (illegal migration more generally, of which the boats are only a relatively small part). If you’re genuinely interested in control over borders, this is essential – particularly since the rapid rate of economic growth in the developing world over the last thirty years may substantially increase migration pressure on the West.
This is counter-intuitive, but people living on two dollars a day had no way to get here – without TV or Internet they didn’t even really know what it was like. Now there are an unprecedented number of people in Africa and Asia living on say $3,000-10,000 per year, the maths is different. They are filled with aspiration for Western lifestyle and prosperity by social media, and are poor enough that getting here and living in a shared room while working in the black market would still enable them to send “huge” sums back by local standards. But while mostly ineligible for legal migration routes, they are now rich enough that organising $10-20,000 between relatives to pay for smuggling fees – overland and across Med, not just the Channel part – is now feasible. Similarly there are migrants flying to Mexico to attempt the land border crossing to the USA – a generation ago, their parents would not have had the option of international flights.
That’s the Big Picture which is reshaping the realities of migration pressure. The boats, like the lorries, are just one means. They are not the driver, and even in terms of numbers are only a relatively small part of the equation. Measures taken on the pull factors may have to be quite severe but at least they impact all the illegal migration routes rather than simply shifting the burden between them. I suspect the black economy needs to be more of a priority than dismantling the welfare state since the bulk of ‘irregular’ migrants disappear from the system rather than intending to live off it. I also suspect, at some point, that we will end up rethinking some things which were previously axiomatic – that successful asylum claims would lead to long-term settlement rather than being periodically reviewed, for example, and maybe the Rwanda scheme is a glimpse of a future in which many Western countries prefer to pay for resettlement to countries deemed stable and safe, while reserving legal migration routes primarily for high-skill visas and family reunions, with strictly short-term visas for low-skill labour shortages. Perhaps the burden of proof required to lodge a successful asylum claim or prevent deportation will shift. I’m not saying that all these things will necessarily happen, or even that they would “work” if they did, but as a matter of politics it seems likely some unthinkables will become thinkable once public opinion grasps the extent of the upcoming challenges. The boats only help us visualise the migration pressure – the Big Picture is, well, bigger… And I’m not sure people have realised quite how big.
This pressure may also apply to rethinking some legal routes to the West – is it really sustainable for Europe to allow people to jump from country to country doing Masters degree after Masters degree, for example? Note again that the heart of this phenomenon is the burgeoning West African Middle Class – part of a global “Megatrend” to pockets of prosperity in the so-called Global South, not a simplistic “bring us your huddled masses” fable. Since it will be many, many decades before these countries catch up with the West economically, but these pockets of prosperity will soon number hundreds of millions of people, we are only seeing here the start of something that could expand by orders of magnitude even over our lifetimes. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-58319976

Last edited 1 year ago by Unherd Reader
Bob Pugh
Bob Pugh
1 year ago

” Tony Abbott successfully copied was Michael Howard’s contract with the country in the 2005 UK general election” It didnt go well for Michael Howard, as he lost big time.

Frances McMahon
Frances McMahon
1 year ago

Tony Abbott is not a role model anyone should follow. The sound bites about refugees with other demonising concepts cost him his seat. The Australian Labor Party of the day descended into in fighting, lost people and lost the election. However UK Labour does need to focus on offering solutions. Perhaps a trade agreement with their closest neighbours would be a place to start.

Frances McMahon
Frances McMahon
1 year ago

Tony Abbott is not a role model anyone should follow. The sound bites about refugees with other demonising concepts cost him his seat. The Australian Labor Party of the day descended into in fighting, lost people and lost the election. However UK Labour does need to focus on offering solutions. Perhaps a trade agreement with their closest neighbours would be a place to start.