‘If you don’t fix immigration, immigration will fix you.” This was new foreign secretary David Cameron’s stern warning to US senators, but it could equally have been addressed to parliamentary colleagues back home.
Last week saw the latest in a series of immigration reform packages, yet nearly a year on from Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” his government seems no closer to a fix which satisfies his party or its supporters.
There are two problems with the policies announced last week: those which work won’t address concerns, while those which address concerns won’t work. The first big package of reforms focused on the rules governing visas, with the goal of bringing net migration numbers down from record highs. While last week’s restrictions may well reduce inflows, they principally target groups – students and skilled workers – who enjoy broad public support. And even if numbers do fall, the impact won’t be visible in migration statistics until after the election.
The second announcement was the latest chapter in the long campaign to get asylum seekers on to planes to Rwanda. Even if the government eventually succeeds in getting these planes in the air, the scheme is doomed by its flawed premise. The “Rwanda scheme” is meant to deter migrants crossing the Channel on small boats – a source of real public concern. But migrants willing to risk their lives making this crossing will not be put off by a minuscule risk of being sent on to Rwanda. This policy will not “stop the boats” and voters know it. Polls show that while many favour the Rwanda scheme in theory, most think it is a waste of money which is unlikely to work.
The broader electoral landscape has also changed dramatically since then-prime minister Cameron struggled with immigration a decade ago. The public is now far more positive about immigration and its effects. Voters now favour maintaining or increasing migration into every profession asked about except banking, while support for migration to fill vacancies in the NHS and social care is overwhelming. A large part of this change is structural – the demographic groups most favourable to migration, such as graduates and ethnic minorities, are growing, while the social conservatives most opposed to it are in decline.
The Conservatives’ anti-migration campaigns have electoral goals: winning back swing voters from Labour and seeing off a challenge from Reform UK on the right flank. Neither looks easy to achieve. Swing voters do not prioritise immigration and no longer trust the Conservatives on the issue.
The hardline approach does not work as an electoral dividing line, as when invited to compare the two parties’ proposals, voters heavily prefer the Labour offer. Conservative focus on the issue also risks backfiring by reinforcing swing voters’ impressions of the Tories as divided, extreme and out of touch with their concerns.
Nor do the current proposals look promising as a means to see off a challenge on the right. Attacks from rightwing backbenchers have already undermined the credibility of Sunak’s new policies with hardline voters, and even if implemented rapidly they will not deliver the swingeing cuts such voters want in time for an election. The endlessly repeated and never-delivered promise to “stop the boats” has thus provided Reform UK with the perfect stick to beat the government in the coming campaign. The government’s effort to see off Nigel Farage may have set the perfect stage for his return.
The government’s mess over immigration brings both risk and opportunity for Labour.
An incoming Labour government will face the same deep challenges and the same sceptical electorate – the voters who have lost faith in the government have little confidence in the opposition either. Rebuilding public trust on immigration will be hard, particularly as the emotive flashpoint of “small boats” migration will probably continue. And if Labour stumbles, the Conservatives will be eager to pounce. Anti-migration campaigns will be easier to run in opposition, liberated from the pesky constraints and compromises of governing.
Yet the electoral coalition Labour has now assembled is, for the first time ever, strongly pro-migration. The voters who will back Labour next year already agree that open migration policies, properly managed, can be a vital ingredient in rebuilding public services and delivering economic growth. The Conservatives’ haphazard campaign of random restrictions and performative cruelty looks set to fail. Labour need to show voters a better approach is possible.
Robert Ford is professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of The British General Election of 2019