‘How should Labour answer the immigration numbers question?’

Sunder Katwala
© 1000 Words/Shutterstock.com

Does Labour think that immigration to Britain should be lower? The party found the question hard to answer in recent general elections. Net migration had then averaged a quarter of a million per year, at similar levels under New Labour and the Conservatives.

Labour politicians were anxious to acknowledge public concern about the pace and scale of immigration yet doubted that setting net migration targets made sense. Labour lacked the policies, reputation and support within the party to ever credibly compete in a political auction over who could promise the lowest numbers.

Has this government’s record on immigration made Labour’s 2024 answer much easier? Up to a point. Having promised to reduce overall numbers in 2019, the Conservatives have tripled net migration to a peak level of 750,000 last year. Keir Starmer and Yvette Cooper feel confident saying that those numbers are too high – so net migration should come down.

But what level should Labour reduce it to? Shadow minister Darren Jones generated headlines saying Labour would bring net migration down to 200,000 but was quickly contradicted by a party spokesperson, who said Labour had no such plans to set an “arbitrary target”. Labour clearly still needs to decide what it does and does not want to say about immigration numbers and targets before the general election.

Recent history shows the case against a net migration target

Do immigration targets matter? For the last 15 years, immigration targets – even those published in election manifestos – have had little status, except as rhetorical soundbites for media consumption.

The “tens of thousands” target to halve net migration was government policy from 2010 to 2019 under David Cameron and Theresa May. Those nine years never saw a green paper, a white paper nor any other form of published immigration plan setting out why the goal was set nor, crucially, how the government intended to meet it.

After Brexit, the government had more control over immigration than ever before. The manifesto pledge to reduce numbers was clearly given next to no weight in government policy choices – with little parliamentary scrutiny of the gap between that pledge and the decisions to make immigration more open.

Recent history can be used to make the case against a net migration target. It is too one-size-fits-all an approach to different immigration flows – and the Conservatives having one clearly made little difference to immigration levels or plans to manage the impacts. Making promises they could not keep was corrosive to public trust.

Setting a specific target would be an unforced error from Labour

But challenging the Conservative record is the easy part for its political opponents. Labour is under much less pressure over the issue than the Conservatives, for whom the numbers challenge has been described as existential. The Conservatives may repeat their former promises, or invent new ones, maybe with diminishing credibility. A populist fringe party like Reform can outbid anything the Conservatives say now – so it proposes that zero net migration should be the target.

But Labour expects to be in government within a year. It would then inherit the challenge of how to secure public confidence and consent for its own immigration choices and outcomes.

Labour can indeed expect overall numbers to be lower, in future, than the exceptionally high levels that it will inherit. The most recent figure – almost 675,000 up to mid-2023 – still includes almost 100,000 from the unusual inflows from Ukraine and Hong Kong (where Labour was part of a cross-party consensus in favour). It also includes an artificial spike from the post-pandemic disruption to the usual inflow and outflow of international students.

Labour does not have a crystal ball for the economic and geopolitical conditions of the five years beyond the election. It would be an unnecessary, unforced error to make any more specific commitment about numbers in the Labour 2024 manifesto than the Conservatives made in 2019 – where specific targets were ditched for a simple statement that overall numbers would be lower.

Instead of a numbers target, Labour should introduce a new argument. What has been missing from this long era of impossible promises and missed targets was any structure of parliamentary or public accountability for the commitments that governments make. As it seeks to rebuild public trust, the next government should propose a new approach that takes democratic control of immigration more seriously.

Labour should propose an ‘immigration budget day’ in parliament

Labour should propose a new ‘immigration budget day’ in the House of Commons, which would become an annual addition to the political calendar. The Home Secretary would report on all migration flows and present the government’s expectations for the coming year, including policy changes, and plans to manage migration impacts.

A new immigration budget day could help make immigration a more ‘normal’ policy issue. Politicians are challenged if they propose unfunded tax cuts or spending commitments, but it is more rare for those calling for lower immigration to propose the means to achieve it. An immigration budget could help to make the policy choices and trade-offs on immigration more transparent too.

A Conservative government that wanted to aim for a specific level of net migration would use the immigration budget day to report on progress towards the target it had set – or its plans to get back on track. If Labour rejects an overall target for net migration, it should set out an annual migration plan, which covers each major area, such as migration for work, the NHS and social care, student migration, asylum and refugee protection, citizenship and integration and the impacts of population change. This would include any specific targets, caps and quotas it might set in various categories.

The immigration budget process should be designed to enable MPs to scrutinise whether tax receipts are being used to manage public service and housing pressures in areas of rising population so migration is managed fairly for those who come to Britain and the places where they live.

Public trust in political promises on immigration is low, but politicians have underestimated the public’s willingness to engage seriously and pragmatically with the dilemmas of control. If Labour’s challenge is to rebuild public consent for the immigration that Britain chooses to keep, putting more confidence in parliament and the public to contribute to the democratic control of immigration would be a good place to start.

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