X Close

Conservatives will be punished on immigration record

Rishi Sunak has struggled to stem the flow. Credit: Getty

April 21, 2024 - 8:00am

It is hard to remember how little of a role immigration played in the 2019 election. The Conservative manifesto promised nothing more than an Australian-style points system and a vague promise that “overall numbers will come down”, particularly at the lower skill end. Labour’s manifesto dedicated two out of 107 pages to the subject, much of it about redress for victims of the Windrush scandal.

Five years on, the scene has changed somewhat. All aspects of migration, legal and illegal, have acquired immense political salience once again. Between fits of despair, both No. 10 and Conservative MPs muse to journalists about the possibility of a small-boats election, or of an ECHR election (to leave to stop the small boats) or of an immigration election. Yet Rishi Sunak, so decisive when it comes to things such as maths in schools and cancelling train lines, has dithered so long that he will be lucky if he gets to contest the January 2025 election (an increasingly likely prospect) as party leader.

The trouble for the Conservatives, of course, is that it is hard to fight an election on immigration when they only have themselves to blame for the problem. They promised lower numbers and more high-skilled migrants; they ended up with higher numbers and more low-skilled migrants. They promised to stop the small boats, but numbers only drop when there is a strong gale in the English Channel. They promised Rwanda as the panacea for those who arrive on dinghies, but have only managed to boost Rwanda’s GDP.

Though the Conservatives are doomed whatever they do, the hope is surely that, by talking tough about immigration and floating plans they will never have the chance to implement, this will stem the bleeding to Reform and perhaps trap Labour. But the party can never outflank Reform on migration, and all Labour has to do is make vague noises about reducing numbers and not screwing it up like the Tories did to defuse the issue.

But neither party will address, at least not explicitly, what is at the core of Britain’s immigration predicament. Many on the Right imagine that the Tories have deliberately flunked their immigration policy because they did not try hard enough to lower the numbers, or because they were not mentally committed to the task. In other words, it is the “wish it harder and it will come to fruition” theory of governance.

But what really drives Britain’s record immigration numbers is the economy, stupid — or rather how the British economy has been structured, often through the Government’s own incentives and policies. Take foreign students, for instance. Successive governments have frozen the tuition fee for home students and at the same time pushed universities to act like businesses.

The result is that British universities, keen to balance their books, have let in thousands of foreign students, sometimes lowering standards in doing so. One may bemoan the outcome, but it is not clear that it was the result of deliberate political malpractice — after all, not hiking tuition fees and pushing universities to be more commercially-minded are both perfectly reasonable policies, taken in isolation.

The same is true for migration and the NHS, whose reliance on foreign workers is often hailed as a positive immigration story. But the NHS’s dependence on foreign staff is the result of the UK’s failure to train enough doctors and nurses, then paying those it trains so badly that they jet off to Australia instead. Again, defensible in theory (not to mention making balancing the books easier, at least in the short term) but problematic in the long run.

None of these examples fits on an election poster, much less a tweet. If the next general election is indeed to be fought, as the Tories hope, on immigration, they will not feature to any extent. But if Keir Starmer is serious about governing, he will have to consider what he will do about them.


Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.

yuanyi_z

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

25 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

Price caps always lead to trouble. Whether it’s university tuition, energy prices, childcare, or residential rents, better to let the market set the price, and if affordability is an issue consider measures to improve supply, alongside targeted government support for the less well off. If Conservative governments repeatedly fail to see this, then perhaps they are not Conservative at all.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago

The reason we have mass immigration is simple: it makes people in Putney, Highgate and Richmond – and the middle class marginals – richer by making people in Acton, Harlow, Walsall and Rotherham poorer.

That’s why the media, which is entirely owned and staffed by the former, will not allow any government to put a stop to it.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Beautifully put Hugh, I was trying to write my views, which are similar but couldn’t have articulated it better.
Excessive low skilled immigration is a result of a generation of a high employment/low wage economy and not investing in automation and higher level skills.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Absolutely. The rich get cheap labour- the state/tax payer gets a £13,000 a year per capita bill for the immigrant’s public services

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

The reason we have high migration is simpletons believe it’s all to do with the sort of twaddle you’ve just conveyed here, much as the Author made clear. All Culture War and zero thought. Pathetic.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Mass immigration, the most damaging domestic economic policy in the last 25 years. Zero thought given to the lasting damage it would cause, ideology over good governance.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

I don’t usually downvote you, but…

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Why is it “twaddle”? People are actually very poor at understanding their own motives. Very few people actually enact policies in their own lives which make them poorer or more vulnerable. The relatively wealthy talk a great positive virtue signaling game on mass immigration, but also benefit from it to some extent – and certainly don’t pay many of the costs in their wealthy communities, which are far too expensive for most migrants to live in. Of course this is a generalization but it is certainly true the middle-class people are much less likely to view to express anti-immigration sentiments that working class people.

I recall Grayson Perry interviewing some very well-off progressive Democrat voting white residents of a wealthy town in New England. They attended every BLM protest going, but then strongly objected to a hostel for poorer people, many of whom were black, being located in their town!

Large scale migration by the way is unpopular in every country in the world – look at the riots in South Africa against Zimbabwean migrants in recent years. This is all the more so if accompanied by essentially giving the migrants exactly the same rights as the host population, and enabling them all to bring their families in (most of whom don’t actually work!) This isn’t actually the policy that the Gulf States, who DO rely a lot on migrant labour, actually follow!

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  j watson

Aside from being childishly insulting, your post makes no sense. The reason we have high immigration is that people complain about it?? That’s just dumb. Or maybe you were trying to say something else but lack the ability to express yourself sufficiently clearly.

David L
David L
1 month ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

The upper middle class love mass immigration because they know it hurts the native working class.
These people like that because they hate and despise the working class.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago

It wont happen
But if Sunak deployed the Navy to stop the boats and stopped the RNLI and Border force interfering.
And stopped issuing any more visas until the UK had a rational policy for matching its population to the public services.
He would win the Election.
(Promising to do it after the election would not be believed).

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

I suggest that even if he wanted to he couldn’t stop the boats directly or stop issuing visas. There are too many people in his ‘class’ (and many in his Party) that would start court cases and sabotage efforts to prevent those things happening. It is somewhat worrying that ‘lawfare’ is being deployed in Western democracies, and completely worrying that our politicians (over the years) have enabled the system for this reflexive interference in Government.
And that’s why the Conservatives are likely to lose the next General Election and Labour the one after that.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

The RNLI are people smugglers. They go out and rescue illegals, and the smugglers make donations to the RNLI.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

It’s pretty harsh to blame the RNLI and a steamed an honorable institution for rescuing people who were drowning in the channel! Their whole purpose is to save lives.

The RNLI are not responsible for the UK’s ludicrous migration policies, and the fact that we don’t leave international treaties and conventions that prevent us doing anything about illegal migrants just tipping up on our shores.

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
1 month ago

Governments believe immigration is good for growth and GDP, but the evidence proves otherwise, other than for the businesses, NGO, human rights lawyers and civil servants that rely on mass migration. Allowing businesses to recruit low skilled workers and pay them 20% less than the minimum wage is a disincentive to invest in productivity and a pull factor for more low skilled immigrants.

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
1 month ago

People that want to go to university should pay the market rate, not have their higher learning subsidised. Many come out of uni and have to get a low skilled job if they can get a job at all.
Forcing students to pay the actual cost of the degree will force some to choose other careers instead.

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
1 month ago
Reply to  Jake Raven

I suspect many degrees cost a student a lot more than it costs the provider – some degrees have less than 10 hours contact a week. Chemistry is the most expensive degree, costing 2-3 times more than tuition fee. Make chemists pay the actual rate and you’ll either get far fewer chemists or industry will have to pay a lot more for them.

Market distortions all over the place.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Jake Raven

Universities are basically obsolete anyway. The problem to which they were once a solution no longer exists. I suspect that many academics subconsciously understand this – hence their increasingly unhinged behaviour.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago

The Tories have been hopeless on most things, well everthing, not just immigration.
Cameron (now Foreign Secretary…lol) couldn’t win his first election against Brown (who was definitely not on tranqillisers…) and only won the second by adopting a Ukip policy…and didn’t plan for the result.
The Maybot was on auto-pilot but trying to overturn the Brexit result.
Johnson was a clown and blagger who apparently didn’t realise he won by promising to abide by Brexit and destroyed the economy by “going with the (wrong) science”.
Truss had the right idea (get the economy going…) but no idea how or political skill to achieve it.
And now we effectively have a replay of the Major years, where a PM is landed with the consequences of his policies as Chancellor. Major’s ERM policy as Chancellor destroyed his credibility as a PM when it came apart. Sunak’s policy as Chancellor of printing money (Quantitative Easing…lol…) to support people not to work during the “lockdowns” has caused massive inflation.
With both we have had the added delight of Tory MPs demonstrating their utter disregard for any sort of propriety, financial or otherwise, in their personal lives.
What is different is the lack of enthusiasm for Labour with the leader of no personality or even fixed views at all and who, apparently, is unfamiliar with the anatomy of the female of our species.
If only “things can only get better”…but it seems a long shot.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Oh look, this post is back…lol

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

I don’t agree that Theresa May, for all her obvious limitations, was trying to “overturn the Brexit result”. The 2016 referendum was a vote AGAINST being a member of the EU, not FOR any particular future arrangement. She was trying to navigate between a whole host of possible options. The fact that the most hard line brexiteers (some of whom have now changed their tune) described any other option than theirs as “Brexit in name only” was pure propaganda. Norway is not a member of the EU, nor now is the UK, Windsor agreement or no. Trading on “WTO terms” is still abiding by international treaty.

Some of the Brexiteers were complete charlatans, largely making it up as they went along. The UK negotiations were undoubtedly dire, and the EU rang rings around us from a position of strength. Doesn’t David Davis, for example, bear are some responsibility for this? Nigel Farage argued for the Norway option and even for a second referendum, which has been rapidly forgotten at least on “our side” of the political / cultural divide. The idea that with one bound we would be free of a 40 year old economic and political entanglement with our near neighbours was (and is) a complete fantasy. “WTO terms” is still abiding by international treaty.

I’m not sure the simple narrative of Johnson being a “clown” is the whole story. He’s a clever and talented man, but fundamentally has no clear principles. He really does appear to want to be accepted and loved by the social liberal metropolitan set, especially since his relationship with Carrie. He actually liberalised immigration policy in direct opposition to what “Red Wall” (and indeed most other) voters wanted!

To be fair to Sunak, he was one of the more sceptical voices on the absurd lockdown overreaction to covid. (There is such a thing as collective cabinet responsibility). Those policies were indeed incredibly destructive, not least because they have given the message (that the British were already prone to) that the government can solve every problem by finding more money. (It has to be said that lockdown policies were even stricter in other countries and yet they have recovered much better than the UK). 5 million people of working age are idle, many of them ‘mentally ill’! (Why would anyone’s our mental health be improved by sitting at home on your arse?!

Truss who was an incredibly limited politician, totally unable to communicate her message (to say the least) which is actually is a key political requirement. Margaret Thatcher did so clearly. Truss was totally unfit to be PM, and even today she can’t imagine that she ever did anything wrong.

The key problem for the Conservatives is they are fundamentally divided between a substantially liberal (and even social liberal ) Thatcherite majority, and a smaller national conservative minority. Whatever the personalities involved, that issue needs to be resolved, or the party will be in opposition for a very long time, will divide, or both.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I mostly agree your first paragraph. The problem is/was the rhetoric by Remainers that the Referendum result was “advisory” or similar sentiment. It wasn’t. Every Party had agreed to abide by the result then effectively tried not to. This hardly led to trust in their motives. Some sort of relationship was/is necessary even if it’s WTO, which wouldn’t be an optimal outcome.
Johnson is indeed clever and talented but entirely without principle and obviously didn’t understand that the Red Wall voted for him solely for his Brexit promise. There are many clever and talented people who are clowns because of their inability to understand “the people’s” views. He is one. His position on Ukraine emphasises that. Most people just don’t care and certainly don’t want Britain to get into a war about it.
With regard to people not working, the difficulty is that money was “found” to “save the banks” after their total irresponsibility, so why not ordinary people? Yes I understand why; most people just don’t care. They were saved, why not me? And sitting on your ar*e at home is indeed useless as a cure; my idea of hell actually.
Yes Truss is limited but certainly had the right idea; the economy has to get going.
Sorry but Sunak is an empty suit ( badly fitting…he must be able to afford a good British tailor…)
And yes, despite the general view Thatcher was socially liberal but had to go with the grain of popular opinion at the time.
The Tories are finished for a long time right enough.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

Yep train more of our own, redesign how we fund Higher and Further education, introduce ID cards, open application centres abroad for those who want to apply to come here, join the EUs Migration Pact as a 3rd Country, and have an adult conversation with our public – just a start.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

There is another reason for not doing anything about immigration- it was Blair’s changes to the courts and giving them the Human Rights Act, and promoting activist judges who constantly stretch every right far beyond the law’s intention.
Consequently an industry of human rights lawyers, immigration lawyers and charities related to both has blossomed.
Then throw in two more powerful factors – the big companies making millions off housing the illegals, and the ubiquitous bbc constantly telling us that immigration is an unmitigated good.

The NHS is full of less well qualified doctors because the government refuses to train young British students; and as the article points out refuses to pay them properly. What they should do is have two separate rates of pay for those qualified in the uk and those qualified abroad).

This is going to get MUCH MUCH WORSE under Starmer who will, like Blair, delight in “rubbing middle Englands’ noses in multiculturalism”, while at the same time importing Labour voters.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
1 month ago

Quite frankly when Sunak says the vaccines are safe (but no longer effective) it is time to say goodbye to the chump. As for the rest of his rag tag party, well they are still in awe to Blairism. They have never repealed any toxic Labour policies introduced and have doubled down on many Labour goals, Tax being one.