Labour’s Immigration Policy: Past Mistakes & Future Opportunities

Labour’s problems with immigration can be traced back to the early days of the European Union’s major expansion into its Eastern and Central neighbours in 2004, allowing in 8 new countries. In reaction, most EU member states triggered transitional controls to stop mostly young, skilled (and unskilled), workers exercising their freedom of movement rights. The only countries not to do so were Sweden, the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

Labour’s domestic policy successes made the UK one of the most attractive destinations for migrants. A booming economy, flexible labour market, and great health and educational infrastructure meant that hundreds of thousands of, mainly Polish workers, came to the UK, and in the process (according to National Institute for Economic and Social Research) added about 0.38% to the UK’s GDP. The Labour Party responded by introducing the points-based system in 2009 and triggered transitional controls when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU. However, it was not able to recover from the political and electoral impact of the numbers arriving in the UK and has struggled with this legacy to this day, thirteen years after leaving office.

David Cameron’s Conservatives infamous net migration target to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ was a ill-faited attempt to signal to the electorate that the Conservatives could manage the issue and kept Labour in a straitjacket. What, in fact, the Coalition Government achieved was a more expensive, cumbersome system, which made the UK a far less attractive place for international students and ended up triggering the Windrush Scandal. Perhaps most significantly, it came to frame the Brexit debate which cost the UK it’s membership to the European Union and Cameron his premiership. Political chaos followed.

The Labour Party now has the opportunity to make a fresh offering to the electorate on immigration. There is new space for the party to offer a new vision, but a smart and effective policy programme could make it a long-lasting one. The party needs to think about what the ‘short-term fix’ is that will get the public’s attention. This must be coupled with a long-term policy strategy that will sustain its credibility and popularity on the issue. How can it begin this journey? I have set out two key thoughts:


Get the boats out of the headlines

Successive Conservative Governments since 2010 failed to meet the net migration target, however, the most damaging issue has been failing to get to grips with migrants crossing the channel in small unsafe boats. Resolving this quickly and effectively is where a Labour Government could make an immediate impact, taking with it a strong lead in public opinion. It is, by no means, an easy issue to fix – managing the crisis requires multi-government coordination (Rishi Sunak has started this with Albania) and a global task force to crack down on criminal networks.

Deploying such a wide-ranging strategy requires major investment, managed by a dedicated ministry and global agencies. A revamped international development department that focuses on the safety and dignity of the most vulnerable, in the world’s most volatile hotspots could form a crucial part of this strategy.

Labour’s first step should be to draw up such plans and explain to the public that this is now a core principle of Labour’s foreign policy. Moving away from xenophobic hysteria against refugees would also be helpful by making the humanitarian cause a position that would help stem the flows of migrants making treacherous journeys and the criminal exploitation that comes along with it.

If, for example, we stick our heads in the sand over what’s now happening in the Sudan, how long until the issue becomes a real crisis point for the UK when boats full of Sudanese refugees come to our shores? Why not establish a legal and safe route that would be genuinely helpful to the most vulnerable and reduce their reliance on criminal traffickers and smugglers?


A new, sophisticated immigration system

Labour’s points-based system has been tweaked, reconstructed, and hollowed out by the Conservatives over the past decade. It has been made more expensive and more complex, all in the name of reducing net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ without success. Its original purpose, to regulate non-EU migrants, is now long gone – it is now an all-encompassing system where even new trade agreements trigger a transformation of the current offering.

Employers need a business-friendly regulatory system that is both responsive to the labour market and easy to utilise. The focus should not be on targets to reduce skilled workers – it should be about quality instead of quantity. Immigration is not the answer to the UK’s current stagnant workforce issues and it certainly is not the solution to it. However, skilled overseas workers are ancillary to managing any gaps in the labour market which should not be dissuaded. Labour should make that argument!

There is still a long way to go with the public fully trusting the Labour Party on the issue of immigration. The Party’s cautious approach towards the issue is appropriate for now, but in the long term it is worth thinking about inward migration in a more radical pro-business and humanitarian way.

If you enjoyed this piece, check out As long-term figures hit 1 million, Tories show they can’t- or won’t- control immigration by Thom Brooks.