The Conservative Party fought three general elections promising to slash immigration to the tens of thousands. Recent net migration statistics show that after thirteen years in government the Conservatives have failed utterly to achieve this.
The Office for National Statistics confirmed that net migration for 2022 was a new all-time record high of 606,000. This is more than twice its peak of about 270,000 in 2007 under Labour and over six times what the Tories pledged when entering Downing Street in 2010.
These new figures leave the government’s credibility in tatters. The ONS data shows that long-term immigration to the UK reached a high of 1.2 million in 2022. Almost 80% of this was from non-EU nationals. These are citizens whose work, family and study visas have always been under the full control of the government long before David Cameron announced there would be a referendum on the UK’s EU membership.
While the government claimed it got Brexit done and that this ensured full control of the borders, it has not done what it repeatedly promised such as cutting net migration. The key reason for this is the Conservatives simply don’t want to. With non-EU nationals making up four out of every five long-term arrivals, most of this was always and already under control. Either the government doesn’t know how the immigration system works or they have chosen not to use it like they promised.
This raises the obvious question of why the government would make promises it could deliver, but chose not to. The answers are revealing.
Nearly thirty percent of long-term immigration is from work visas, mainly in areas like highly skilled visas for occupation shortages like in health and social care. At the most recent Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour leader Keir Starmer was right to say that the current work visa system set up by the Conservatives has undercut wages and failed to properly invest in education and skills here today. We have skills gaps for jobs in demand. Instead of investing in training up the British workforce, the government has been complacent, allowing the UK to become dependent on overseas workers coming here to fill our gaps. This dependence has meant the government has never enacted a cap on work visas as it needs more and more to come to support the flagging economy.
The largest migrant group are overseas students. They play a clear role in providing significant economic benefits to the wider economy, as well as the institutions where they are enrolled. As student fees have remained frozen, there has been an increasing dependence as well on overseas students and the extra funding support they bring with them. (I know. I was an international student.)
The government has claimed that they will take action by enacting a new policy of preventing overseas students from bringing dependents, but the effect will not be significant and won’t make an impact for some time. It does not affect postgraduate research students and will not be in place until January 2024. This is after most students will have started their studies. There will likely be little impact until the end of 2024 – perhaps in time for a general election – which the government must know, but its purpose was to sound like it was taking action while not addressing fundamental issues- as per the Tory policy playbook.
But again, the Home Secretary’s ability to do this did not require Brexit nor any of the laws passed by the Tories since 2010. Like in the Wizard of Oz, Suella Braverman had the powers all along. She simply didn’t know or want to use them no matter how often this is pointed out.
The Conservative Party’s reputation for any competence on immigration is in complete disarray. For over a decade, the public has heard increasingly tough talk from Go Home vans as part of a hostile environment to removal flights to Rwanda as part of a plan to stop small boats. These gimmicks have made headlines, but no more. The evidence is none of this nonsense was ever required to deliver the big net migration cuts promised. After years of new laws, regulations and speeches, the Conservatives could act but chose not to.
The problem is primarily with their promises. These have been made and accepted by the public in good faith. Today, this is exposed for the shambles it is and, in my view, represents an existential threat to the government. It has lost control over immigration and soon control altogether.
Trust matters in public life. Labour has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fill this gaping void – and elsewhere I have offered a vision for how Keir Starmer might achieve this with a fair plan to deliver a new points-based system for post-Brexit Britain. The public deserves better. It’s time we had a government that had the competence and compassion to deliver what it promises.
This won’t be easy or simple. We must embrace the courage of our convictions. The Tories have broken the system – and broken the trust of the British public with it. For over a year, Labour has held a lead on immigration. The public is willing to give us a hearing. As a former shadow immigration minister I had the pleasure to support, Starmer is ideally placed to understand the challenges and need for a Labour government to deliver transformational change.
Nothing sums up thirteen years of Tory government more than their immigration policies: incompetent, lacking in compassion and having left the country worse off than when it first took power.
This catalogue of failures runs through all policy areas from the economy to health, from education to crime and housing and more. We have an opportunity to win in areas, like immigration, like we never have before. Let’s seize this chance with both hands. If Labour can build its lead on immigration, it will make a significant difference in winning the next General Election.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out another blog on immigration policy, Jay Asher’s Uganda to Ukraine: 50 Years of British Immigration.