by Aris Roussinos
Tuesday, 22
November 2022
Debate
11:48

Can Labour outflank the Tories on immigration?

Keir Starmer should not squander this open goal
by Aris Roussinos
Is this the roadmap to No10? Credit: Getty

Keir Starmer today vowed to the CBI that a Labour government would “help the British economy off its immigration dependency to start investing more in training workers who are already here”. It is, like his recent complaint that the NHS recruits too many foreign workers instead of training up British staff, an obvious ploy to reassure disenchanted Tory voters that Labour is worth a chance in power.

After all, a couple of years ago I suggested here that Starmer’s obvious road map to Number 10 involved outflanking the Conservatives from the Right. The notional pursuit by both parties of the average British voter, whose statist and redistributive economic views are coupled with a distaste for unchecked immigration and experimental identity politics, made this the obvious gambit.

But what was not obvious was that the Tories would squander any pretence of competence on the basic, bread-and-butter issues that rally both their core and wavering voters: economic stability, managed immigration and robust law and order. No more need be said about the Conservative Party’s management of the economy in recent weeks and, in terms of law and order, Starmer never ceases to remind voters aghast at the collapse of policing under the Tories of his solid record as Director of Public Prosecutions. But when it comes to migration, Labour is positioning itself in front of an open goal. 

While the Conservatives partly sold Brexit as a means to bring immigration levels back down from the highs initiated by New Labour’s more or less open door policy, their record in government has been jarringly different. Under Johnson, immigration reached its highest level ever, with 1.1 million visas issued last year: not far off the 1.3 million migrant and refugee arrivals to Germany in 2015, then seen as a Europe-wide political crisis, and one which, ironically, played a famously notable role in the Brexit debate. 

But even these record levels of inward migration, dwarfing the waves of immigration which transformed American society between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were not enough for the Conservative Party. Truss’s signature policy platform, apart from her disastrous budget experiment, was a trade deal with India which amounted, in her own Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s words, to an “open borders” agreement with the country’s 1.4 billion people.

After all this, the Conservative Party can no longer credibly position itself as the party of controlled inward migration: instead, it has pursued a doom loop of lax border enforcement, causing further pressure on housing and public services, while blocking the housebuilding and investment in infrastructure that would ease some of the strain. Something has to give, and that something is surely giving Labour the chance to pursue a different policy. 

The howls of outrage Starmer’s interventions on immigration have attracted from Left-liberals who will, in any case, still vote Labour next election are perhaps part of the point: like Blair quelling the unions, Starmer needs to show voters he can face down the open borders activists within Labour’s ranks. Labour may not bring immigration numbers down but, under constant attack from a Conservative court press who ran cover for Johnson’s failures, they are unlikely to actively seek to increase numbers like our two last Tory leaders did.

Whether or not he will succeed in power, or whether he intends any meaningful change, is perhaps beside the point: the Conservatives had years to address the problem, and blew it in spectacular fashion. When even Nigel Farage can pop up asserting that “Labour are now to the Right of the Tories on immigration”, the Conservative reputation on border controls, like so much else, is lost to history.

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Matt M
Matt M
9 days ago

I am still staggered by the incompetence of the Tory party leadership. To throw away an 80 seat majority and to allow Labour to park its tanks on its own lawn takes some doing.
Truly staggering!

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 days ago

Unless and until Starmer commits to leaving the EHRC and repealing the Human Rights Act, this is just posturing.

polidori redux
polidori redux
8 days ago

“this is just posturing.”
The Tory Party can’t even manage that much.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
8 days ago

Now all he has to do to win is look up the dictionary definition of “woman”

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
8 days ago

And suppress all republication or mention of him and The Hon Member for Shameless kneeling.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
8 days ago

There was a time when a party that represented “labour” (as in working stiffs) would be an immigration hawk because foreign immigrants naturally compete with native born workers and depress their wages.
The abandonment of this principle by the entire global Left signals their transition to an elite party. While foreign immigration hurts the poor most, elites like it because it makes the servant class that caters to their needs cheaper to employ.

R Poesje
R Poesje
9 days ago

Can someone explain to me why wanting British working class people – white and black – to get off long term benefits and into work is right wing?
Labour traditionally championed the working class, Starmer is therefore simply taking his party back to its routes.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
8 days ago
Reply to  R Poesje

Kind of related: I (absolutely not a leftie) have found myself in the odd position of explaining to leftie friends that limiting low-skilled immigration would be in the interests of the domestic working class. I mean you have to take a step back and marvel at the topsy-turviness of it: a person who is right of centre (and solidly middle class) having to explain and advocate basic positions of the left (“repeat after me: you are supposed to be defending the rights and interests of the workers: that is your purpose, that is your job”) to left-wingers.
Further proof that we need to either jettison these right/left wing labels or completely redefine them for the 21st century.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
8 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I think they abandoned that role about 20 to 25 years ago.
Possibly around the same time the The Conservatives abandoned conservatism.

N Forster
N Forster
8 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

It is astonishing how many adults do not understand supply and demand. Amazing too is how many who do understand it, deny it for political or ideological reasons.

Last edited 8 days ago by N Forster
l davies
l davies
8 days ago
Reply to  R Poesje

This is because white working class were the workhorses of the country before they were offered 0 hours contracts and unreliable and unethical work. You work for pay. This is not available to working classes necessarily on 0 hours contracts. The situation is extremely complex and unethical. This nasty view of the working class, where they have now been labelled as shameful untermensch is a right wing view. “Shameful benefit scroungers”. How about offer WORK on a fair wage- left wing view- traditionally socialist and in actual fact- scrap left wing and right wing- this is a human right. Stop conning people out of their pay for their labour and people will show up.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
8 days ago

Both Starmer and Sunak seem to me to be missing the point and, frankly, not giving the voters enough credit.
In my mind the problem with EU legal freedom of movement was not as such the numbers involved rather it was the sense, likely justified, that free movement was not reciprocal movement. Had 2 million young unemployed or underemployed all headed under free movement to the A8 countries for wages, welfare and the like then we would have had a 90% REMAIN vote. It may well be the case that free movement was something that allowed the economy to flourish. The problem came when to a large number of people free movement meant the freedom to have your labour market casualised and your job zeroed – why should anyone vote for more of that? Sunak is not wrong that illegal migration is plainly an issue in need of resolution. Every migrant boat is a slap across the face of those of us who went through the system with all the strain it (rightly) brings. But illegal migration is not the full picture.
Similarly, Starmer and co seem to have taken to the idea that if you don’t like immigration then you are a racist that can be ignored. Starmer is right that UK business and the NHS need to wean themselves off wage arbitrage and casualisation. Seeing writers in the media conflate asylum seeking and labour marked shortages has been dispiriting to say the least. What Starmer’s not talking about is the justice system that he himself is a product of has muscled in on decisions about who should be here which rightly belong to nationally elected politicians.
The voters aren’t stupid. They know that the EU was offering a deal that lacked reciprocity, that the courts are a real stumbling block, that illegal migration matters a lot both morally and practically and that the quality of legal migration should be the focus. The reason the voters are punishing everyone is because no politician seems able to hold more than one thought in their head at once.

Fanny Blancmange
Fanny Blancmange
8 days ago

I like how this debate continues to hinge on the present posture, casually broken promises and future prospects of those who have brought us to this situation. Like a Newsnight panel discussing what is next for the captain of a sinking ship whose passengers are drowning. “Can we get Shipman back to help see the NHS through this terrible Winter” etc?

Frederick Dixon
Frederick Dixon
7 days ago

Back when Jacqui Smith was Home Secretary in the Blair years, she said (words to the effect) “we have to break the link between people coming here to work, and getting to stay”. Well, she never did, and nor has anyone since.
It remains the case that the great majority of work visas are T2, leading eventually to permanent settlement. Why not issue temporary work permits instead, we could then have all the immigration anyone could reasonably want, but a very low level of net immigration. Everyone happy!

Joseph Clemmow
Joseph Clemmow
23 hours ago

My fear with Starmer is that he will be a Trojan horse for the radical cultural left that dominates his party’s administrators and the civil servants he will hire in a future government. A Labour government will almost certainly increase immigration into the country and erect further legal barriers preventing the deportation of illegal ones.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
9 days ago

With UK unemployment at 3.5% surely there aren’t that many British Staff to train up. Don’t we need some “controlled” immigration?

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
9 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Also I should say, we have low unemployment and yet companies are still struggling to recruit. That seems to suggest that the 3.5% who are unemployed are unemployed for a reason will probably remain unemployed. I get the distinct impression that there aren’t enough people in the UK to drive the growth that the government wants.

Matt M
Matt M
9 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

There are two sides to the story, as I’m sure you know.
If you increase immigration you increase production and consumption – these things are elastic and expand as you increase the inputs. In other words, you get economic growth.
But the less elastic things – house building, hospital beds, GP appointments, school places, roads and rail etc – cannot keep up (especially if the immigrants are on low-to-moderately salaries and so pay negligible amounts of tax). Because demand outstrips supply, you get mile-long waiting lists and sky-high house prices.
Surely the job of government is to balance the two.
While we were in the EU we couldn’t control demand. Now we can and the government – either the current one or the next – must.

Last edited 9 days ago by Matt M
Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
9 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Thanks Matt, I completely agree. I was just responding to the article which suggests we can avoid the need for immigration by training up people from within. I’m just not sure if there are enough people available to fill the gap. For example, I see that there are vacancies for 46000 nurses. 90% of hospitals don’t have enough nurses. There are 165000 vacancies for care workers. The construction industry is desperate for more skilled workers. Tell me if I’m wrong but I don’t think there are enough people available for training to fill those gaps. What do you think?

Michael Daniele
Michael Daniele
9 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

In the US, the official unemployment calculation is rigged to grossly undercount. If you have not sought work in the past 4 weeks, you are no longer considered in the labor force, so are not part of the calculation. It also does not differentiate part time vs fulltime work. It’s all based on a survey of 60,000 households.
This explains how the computed value can be so low, yet so many companies are looking for workers.
Perhaps in the UK it is similar.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
9 days ago

You are probably right Michael but if companies, the NHS, the Care Industry, the construction industry and others are still complaining of a shortage then there must not be enough available people around to fill those vacancies. Mr Roussinos is saying we should train from within so we don’t need immigration, great idea but my question is: where are those trainees to come from?
I’m in the Uk, West Midlands and everywhere I go there are Vacancy posters on walls and on roundabouts – training given they say.

Chris W
Chris W
9 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

I agree with you. Not only do we not have enough people but those we have want to work from home via a computer screen. Bloggers and influencers can be found everywhere but it is difficult for a care worker to work from home.
Therefore we have to bring people in to do the unpopular jobs.

Michael Daniele
Michael Daniele
9 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

Or stop incentivizing them to stay home.

Last edited 9 days ago by Michael Daniele
Matt M
Matt M
9 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Cheers Steve.
Yes i think the approach needs to be multi-pronged and will take time to get right.
I think we should (as we are) prioritise shortage occupations in our work visa allocations.
I think we should guide our young poeple away from non-STEM degrees (surely Britain’s demand for sociologists is limited) and towards vocational qualifications and apprenticeships where there are gaps in our skills base.
We have had a huge (500k I think) rise in the number of people on long-term sick since COVID. These cases need urgent review and people need help to get back to work.
We need the government to incentivise capital investment in automation and process improvement through the tax system so firms can move away from the need for lots of low-cost workers.
We may have to rethink whether committing old people to nursing homes is actually such a great idea. When I was a boy – in the 1980s – it was considered a bit cruel to put your grandparents in a care home. They moved in with their children when they became too frail to live alone. What changed?
I’m sure there are many more things to do. But nothing will happen while unlimited cheap foreign labour is on tap.

Last edited 8 days ago by Matt M
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
8 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

In my opinion the UK doesn’t have a labour shortage, it has too many businesses chasing too few customers. Now without the government opening the immigration floodgates what should happen is this increased competition for workers would lead to higher wages which in turn would cause some of the more poorly run companies to fail, with their market share being taken by a more productive rival. Eventually you hit an equilibrium where enough zombie businesses have fallen over that you no longer have a labour shortage, wages have improved and only the best businesses have survived which has increased productivity. Large increases in cheap imported labour simple keeps us in the current status quo of low wages and poor productivity, and that’s before we mention the pressure it puts on housing, infrastructure and public services

Matt M
Matt M
8 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

This can’t be said enough Billy Bob.

Clara B
Clara B
9 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Nothing wrong with controlled immigration – irregular, mass and illicit migration is a massive problem. However, regardless of where people are coming from and why, where will they live? We have about a million people in some form of housing need in the UK. A member of my family recently tried to rent a house and there were around 50 people who expressed an interest in it (and this was before the letting agent drew a line on queries about it. And this is in a poor and not especially nice area of London). I don’t think the powers that be realise how terrible the housing market is (esp for renters).

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
8 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Something like 2.5M people are out of work on long-term sickness benefits, surely this is something that we can improve upon; to say nothing about the over 50s who have just taken themselves out of the job market by retiring early (I don’t know how they can afford it though). What I’m saying is that there should be some effort put in to getting economically inactive people back into the workplace.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
8 days ago

I agree Linda. The other issue is about productivity. We are always being told that our productivity is poor. German has higher productivity and what is more they work fewer hours per week and per year and get more holiday. I have no idea why our productivity is low although I believe it is getting better.
Unfortunately I think it’s going to take time to fix and in the meantime I think we have to accept some immigration.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
8 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Unemployment figures are not the same as measuring the levels of economic inactivity and, as far as I am aware, students are not included. Perhaps not warehousing hundreds of thousands of teenagers who, by now, must include those of average IQ, in third rate universities while racking up debts that will never be repaid might free up some candidates for vocational training. I would also look at offering bursaries or other incentives for taking STEM courses.

Last edited 8 days ago by Al M