Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has criticised Rishi Sunak’s government for overseeing an immigration policy that, in his opinion, reflects the incompetence of the UK government.
Starmer recently stated that the government has ‘completely lost control’ of net migration. He added that ‘we need a managed approach’ to the UK’s immigration policy, stating that ‘like almost everything else under this government, there’s no plan, there’s no control and, just like everything else, it seems like the system is broken.’
As some commentators have suggested, this is a change of tact from the Labour Party’s traditional stance on the issue of immigration. It is even an alteration from the current Labour leader’s opinion several years ago. When campaigning for votes from the Labour Party membership in the leadership contest back in 2019, Keir Starmer vehemently upheld the principle and policy of ‘free movement’ within the European Union.
The Labour leader has, however, realised that political reality has forced him to change his hand. He ruled out that commitment two years ago and has gone further to boost the public’s confidence that they can trust Labour with overseeing a fair yet robust immigration policy. Speaking at the Confederation of British Industry conference in November 2022, Starmer affirmed that a Labour government would wean the UK off its ‘immigration dependency,’ adding that ‘the days when low pay and cheap labour are part of the British way on growth must end.’
Starmer’s recent critique of the UK government’s immigration policy is well-timed. All government departments are reportedly ‘on alert,’ anticipating the publication of the latest Office for National Statistics report that will reveal net migration figures in the coming days. Despite Britain’s departure from the European Union ending the free movement of European workers into and out of the British Isles, there has been a seismic increase in individuals coming to the UK from outside the European Union. The speculated increase within media circles varies, yet there is broad consensus that the net immigration number will be significantly higher than the previous peak, which was 504,000 in 2022. Some have even suggested the number may hit a staggering one million. Whilst the Centre for Policy Studies senior researcher Karl Williams believes the figure of one million would be ‘at the very top end of our estimates,’ he added that it was ‘by no means an implausible figure.’
The current situation is a far cry from David Cameron’s commitment to reduce annual net immigration down to ‘the tens of thousands’ back in 2010. The issue of immigration has been a constant political headache for the Conservative Party. The Conservatives have been in government for thirteen years, and voters have continuously heard their commitment to reducing immigration. It is a popular policy among many voters, especially when the political saliency of the issue within the media is high. One of the main motivations for many of those that voted for Britain’s departure from the European Union, and indeed the four million that voted for the right-wing, populist UKIP, was to reduce the number of immigrants entering the British Isles. The infamously popular slogan ‘take back control’ was indicative of many voters’ desires to reduce immigration, and Starmer has chosen to politically wield the term again to illustrate a post-Brexit government that has reneged on that promise.
Whilst the number of EU citizens entering the UK has plummeted, those from the rest of the world have significantly increased. The high numbers have been attributed to a variety of factors, including refugees from Ukraine fleeing warfare, Hong Kong nationals arriving amid Chinese political aggression, and the need to fill the huge vacancies within the National Health Service.
Ministers have decided that it is postgraduate students’ dependencies that must be reduced. In 2018, the Home Office issued 12,806 visas for postgraduate students’ families. That number increased to 135,788 in 2022. The government is considering plans to halt masters’ students bringing family into the country, as insiders fear the ONS report will reveal that ‘numbers will be high.’
Rishi Sunak has decided to focus on illegal immigration, pinning the commitment to ‘stop the boats’ onto his five key pledges. Yet those undertaking the dangerous crossing of the English Channel make up a tiny minority of the official net migration figures. As commentators have suggested, it is the scale of legal immigration in the post-Brexit environment that is quickly becoming a ‘political headache’ for Rishi Sunak, caused by both disgruntled voters and Tory MPs alike.
Keir Starmer may have noticed another political opportunity and may explain his changing stance on the immigration issue. It may have contributed to the impressive performance of the Labour Party in many Brexit-voting areas in the recent 2023 local elections. In 2019, huge amounts of traditionally Labour voters in these areas abandoned the party, understanding their immigration policies under Jeremy Corbyn to be too soft and a ‘one-way street.’
Nevertheless, the Conservative government continue to adopt the same political communication they have done for the last thirteen years. A Home Office spokesperson relayed the message that ‘the public rightly expect us to control our borders and we remain committed to reducing net migration over time, while ensuring we have the skills our economy needs.’ Many voters will pass judgement on this commitment at the ballot box in 2024.
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