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04 December 2019

Do the parties' policies address the key challenges on immigration?

Sunder Katwala

SUNDER KATWALA: The next parliament may see the biggest immigration reforms for 40 years, but do the manifestos reflect this?

Sunder on immigration

The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series here

Immigration reform could prove a major theme of the next parliament. Yet the immigration debates of 2020 are obscured in the 2019 party election manifestos, because the immigration debate that happens next depends on what this election does or does not decide about Brexit. 

The high public, political and media salience of immigration in the run-up to the 2016 referendum reflected a loss of public confidence in how successive governments had managed immigration. The historic spike in immigration after the 2004 EU enlargement was unanticipated and poorly managed in terms of how public services responded to local population change. After 2010, governments pledged a significant cut in net migration, a promise which proved impossible to keep, further eroding public trust. 

The core challenge is to restore public confidence in how we manage immigration and integration in Britain. Immigration reforms need to meet the following six tests:

  • Be fair to those who come to live, work and study in the UK;
  • Be fair to the local communities that migrants come to live in;
  • Work for the economy;
  • Be practically deliverable as policy;
  • Uphold the UK’s international obligations;
  • Secure public confidence and consent, ideally across political and social divides.

The 2019 manifestos contain familiar content – yet also reflect some nuanced shifts in immigration discourse, following the sustained dip in the public salience of immigration since 2016. 

The majority of the public are “balancers” who see both pressures and gains on immigration. How the different party manifestos reflect this is influenced by how that balance is seen differently, between cities and towns, across generations, by the different political tribes and the broader coalitions of voters the parties hope to attract.

The Conservative manifesto most consciously seeks to balance control, contribution and compassion – visibly cycling through these themes in order. Control means ending free movement from the EU for a new “Australian-style” points system. Contribution means seeing Britain as a “magnet” for skills needed in the economy and public services – exemplified by new NHS, science and tech visas – while expecting migrants to pay in before receiving benefits. Compassion means compensating Windrush victims, guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights, and continuing to “grant asylum and support for refugees fleeing persecution,” albeit contingently: “with the ultimate aim of helping them return home when it is safe to do so”. The manifesto declares itself to have offered a balanced “package of measures that is fair, firm and compassionate."

The major opposition parties emphasise the economic and cultural gains of migration. Labour ducks EU free movement as being contingent on the Brexit outcome but has, since 2017, dropped reforms to free movement as one of Labour’s six tests of a Brexit deal. The party would now seek to “protect” free movement rights in future negotiations with the EU. The clear implication is that maintaining free movement would be part of a Labour Brexit deal, not just if the decision was to Remain in the EU.  As explicitly pro-Remain parties the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru defend free movement as a positive in itself, beyond this being part of the EU and single market club rules.

The next parliament may see the biggest systemic reforms for 40 years, yet investing in the immigration system itself is absent from every manifesto. Nor, beyond the UK-EU Brexit negotiations, does any manifesto consider whether or how migration and trade policy could be linked during the next decade.

Sunder Katwala

The sharp divisions between the parties on what Brexit choices mean masks an emerging convergence on several aspects of policy. 

There is an emerging cross-party consensus on student, post-study and skilled migration: a less “one-size-fits-all” approach, though with scant detail on policy. The “more flexible merit-based systems” with which the Lib Dems would replace tier two visas for non-EU migrants are a typical example for all parties.

The SNP focuses on an immigration system able to meet Scotland’s needs, while the DUP favour skills lists for different parts of the UK.

Immigration numbers are a less prominent theme in 2019 than in any recent set of manifestos. The Conservatives still state that “overall numbers will come down,” though they have ditched any specific target for reductions. Since the policies proposed would curb low-skill EU migration, while mildly liberalising non-EU migration policy, it is not a reform plan that prioritises reducing overall numbers much, if at all.

The impact of the Windrush scandal on migration discourse can be seen in Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens making prominent pledges to dismantle the ”hostile environment”, with Labour specifying the repeal of the 2014 Immigration Act. The Conservatives describe what happened to the Windrush generation as “horrific”, and pledge a prominent London memorial to mark the contribution of the Windrush generation, while the Greens would make Windrush Day a bank holiday.

All parties declare the need to protect the rights of EU nationals after Brexit. Yet, the Conservative claim to have “committed absolutely to guaranteeing their existing rights” is challenged by opposition parties, since current policy would see those who do not apply before December 2020 being deprived of legal status. 

The principle of refugee protection commands a consensus too, with the Liberal Democrats making several detailed commitments to refugee resettlement, sharing with Labour a commitment to ending indefinite detention and closing some detention centres. The Brexit Party’s slim manifesto devotes only 50 words to immigration. Nigel Farage’s desire to be less defined by immigration than UKIP sees commitments to reduce numbers and “crack down” on illegal immigration combined with commitments to non-discrimination and to welcoming “genuine refugees”.  

Integration often feels an afterthought in these manifestos. The Conservatives “will boost English language teaching” – while Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP want to see less cost and complexity in the citizenship process.

Several major themes of immigration policy are absent altogether.

The next parliament may see the biggest systemic reforms for 40 years, yet investing in the immigration system itself is absent from every manifesto. Nor, beyond the UK-EU Brexit negotiations, does any manifesto consider whether or how migration and trade policy could be linked during the next decade.

The unusual absence of any pejorative reference to illegal immigration from the Conservative manifesto may reflect the Prime Minister’s support for a process of “amnesty” for undocumented migrants – but also a desire to only engage with that theme after the election.

Striking the right tone for how each party wants to talk about immigration, appears to have been the dominant concerns of the authors of the 2019 manifestos. Yet the next parliament may be faced with a once-in-a-generation “reset moment” for immigration reform – one where getting the details right will be key to shaping a new immigration system which works for the economy and society while securing political consent and public confidence.

 Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

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