Immigration policy – Corbyn style

17th September, 2015 5:47 pm


Jeremy Corbyn has yet to confirm details on the immigration policies he would propose and what changes, if any, he would make to the shadow minister for immigration post. So here are a few ideas about what kinds of policies the Labour Party might support under Corbyn’s leadership that would put clear water between Labour and the Tories while championing the progressive cause:

Refugee crisis – more should be done now

The government has rejected taking on additional refugees in Calais, it has rejected being part of a quota system, it favours processing only refugees in transfer programmes outside the EU and there are growing signs of possible support for airstrikes in Syria.

Corbyn is unlikely to support airstrikes given his well-known stance on this issue. Launching an offensive might contribute to making the refugee problem worse before it gets better.

While ending the civil war in Syria (among other places) is key, Corbyn could shrewdly push for up to 20,000 refugees accepted into the UK in two years. He could argue that Cameron has already committed the government to accepting up to 20,000 refugees and so Labour could not be accused of opening floodgates. Accepting greater numbers would be more bold and could come later.

But the shorter time scale would underscore that refugees are in immediate danger and so they need to be helped now. Corbyn could press the point that if Cameron so readily acknowledges the urgent plight of the refugees he is willing to save, why is he so reluctant to act quickly which will only prolong their suffering while he drags his feet? Corbyn could use this issue to highlight the government isn’t taking the refugee crisis seriously—which they aren’t.

It is clear that there are problems among EU member states on how best to manage the record number of asylum applications. But Corbyn could follow the pro-EU message coming from his Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn and argue that Labour must be in Europe to be an equal partner to reforming the EU’s refugee policy so that it can be fair and better help genuine refugees in need.

A final idea is to push funding for an European Migration Impacts Reduction Fund. This would be paid into by each EU member state and redistributed according to need in light of set criteria. The purpose would be that those areas that require extra support to reduce the impact of migration should receive it. It’s something Ed Miliband talked about during the general election and builds off of a smaller scheme launched by Gordon Brown. In other words, clear Labour credentials that Corbyn should be able to support.

Fair migration, not ‘net’ migration

The next policy difference could be about the government’s so-called ‘net migration’ target. It’s otherwise known as the target they keep missing by increasing amounts. There are many reasons to scrap it.

One reason is that net migration does not track what most people mean by ‘migration’. Net migration looks only at the total in-flow and total out-flow. If over a year 100,000 people leave the UK, but 200,000 enter Britain then ‘net migration’ is 10,000. But part of the problem is that this statistic counts British citizens as migrants. Technically, they are if coming or going. But if 100,000 UK citizens came back, few would say this is what they had in mind when they thought of migration statistics. People think migration is about non-UK citizens, but it isn’t and it helps paint a very misleading picture.

A second reason is that most people don’t think of students – even non-UK students – as migrants. They are thinking about long-term migration of non-UK citizens. That’s something different.

A third problem with net migration is there’s some things that shouldn’t be cut like asylum seekers with valid claims. It’s not the UK’s responsibility alone and more must be done at EU level to improve asylum policy: the current system must be improved. But Corbyn could highlight that people with legitimate asylum claims should not be turned away because the doors are closing to admit anyone. It would also be helpful to make clear to the public that most migrants to the UK are not refugees despite public opinion to the contrary.

Finally, it is a mistake to think that some macro-level maths are going to make things right. A prediction: bringing even net migration down to 200,000 or less per year won’t satisfy many of the people concerned about it now. Some want none at all. Zero. So focusing on an unachievable statistic that doesn’t mean what most people thinks it should is not the way the go. Especially when the government repeatedly fails to reach it. Reaching 99,000 net migration won’t bring immediate calm to those concerned about where things stand now.

Corbyn’s alternative could be to reject the use of net migration to instead having regard for long-term migration by non-British citizens. This need not entail a commitment to slash numbers, but to change the terms of the debate. And that’s something he seems keen to do.

An immigration system that works

Immigration law is a complex area of law where the regulation change virtually daily. It is genuinely so bad that poor advice is easy to find even from officials. Part of the reason is that the immigration rules are overly complex. Another reason is their rapid change gives few an opportunity to keep up with what the changes are.

But making up rules on the go like this only leads to a system few understand and least of all the public. Corbyn’s commitment to democratic decision-making could spur him to call for a much needed national conversation about immigration. It is 10 years since the only Life in the UK Advisory Group headed by Sir Bernard Crick. I have argued for its reintroduction before and Corbyn might be just the leader to do it.

This review could examine what citizens want from the immigration system and include feedback from people – like me – that became naturalised British citizens to learn more about how efforts to promote English language skills and integration could be improved among other things. Any resistance from Cameron could be viewed as an effort to stifle debate about immigration and an arrogant government telling the rest of us what we should think.


These few thoughts about refugees, net migration and creating a fair system that works are possibilities that Corbyn and his team might want to consider for the future. They seem to connect well with his past statements on these and related topics. More importantly, they would help distinguish Labour policies from the Tory policies in a progressive way. What happens next remains to be seen.

Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University, a columnist for regional newspaper The Journal and Communications Lead for Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson

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