What would Prime Minister Keir Starmer mean for immigration policy? – Dr Azeem Ibrahim

A new study concludes that announced and probable Labour policies would see net migration increase by an estimated 250,000 a year, writes Dr Azeem Ibrahim

It’s no secret that Keir Starmer would very much prefer not to talk about immigration. Riding high in the polls, there’s very little reason to show his hand on a subject which can only realistically cause him to lose votes.

It also has the potential to force open key rifts within the Labour party. The lack of a fleshed-out policy from the Loyal Opposition, combined with the approach of criticising Tory policy from whichever ideological angle is most rhetorically profitable at any given moment, has plastered over the true extent of internal disagreement on the issue.

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The Corbynite-left of the party is largely characterised by its desire for open borders. The rhetoric focuses on the moral character of those who would put any restrictions on immigration, with an implicit – and sometimes explicit – accusation that it is racism that must motivate it. As we move towards the centre-left, the language becomes increasingly subtle, with calls instead for “safe and legal routes”. As stock answers go to the question of immigration, at least it’s a superficially plausible one. The argument says if you want to cut illegal immigration, you should open up more legal routes, in addition to the anti-modern slavery, Ukraine, Hong Kong and other extant routes.

Creating 'safe and legal routes' for migrants could lead to rates of immigration far higher than they are today (Picture: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)Creating 'safe and legal routes' for migrants could lead to rates of immigration far higher than they are today (Picture: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)
Creating 'safe and legal routes' for migrants could lead to rates of immigration far higher than they are today (Picture: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)

The cost of immigration

The trouble, of course, is that unless these legal routes are so generous as to accept the kinds of people crossing the Channel, the boats will keep crossing. If they are generous enough to accept people seeking economic betterment from countries like Iran, we must expect immigration multiple times higher than its current level. After all, we currently only see those willing to risk life and limb to get here. With a simple form to fill in from your home country, it’s obvious the numbers will be many times higher. In the way its normally advocated, often by refugee charities and NGOs, it functions as code for open borders.

Heading towards the political mainstream, where, thank goodness, Starmer can be found, we have a genuine understanding of the costs as well as the conveniences of immigration. While concern about culture, social institutions, and the like are not as prevalent as they are in the Conservative party, Starmerites appreciate the impact of cheap labour on low-skilled wages. They appreciate the impact of persistently very high immigration on housing supply, in the absence of any concerted efforts to get the UK building more houses. They also, no doubt, appreciate the electoral calculus – very high immigration will turn swing voters away, and leaves Red Wall seats vulnerable.

In fact, Starmer himself has, going back to 2015 when he became immigration minister under Corbyn, been making speeches to business to the effect that Labour policy will involve a balance between stymieing the flow of immigrant labour and encouraging British business to invest in UK-born workers rather than poaching from overseas. It’s a policy that led Nigel Farage to announce that Starmer was “further right” than the Tories on immigration. He’s also been mostly silent on Home Secretary James Cleverly’s package of reforms designed to cut migration, which some believe is a sign of tacit approval. But does this perception stack up to a more forensic analysis?

This kind of forensic analysis I have undertaken before, notably in assessing Starmer’s foreign policy. New Henry Jackson Society research, which I undertook with the help of other immigration, demographics and criminology experts, is quite clear in its conclusions. The most likely set of policies – namely the scrapping of the Rwanda scheme, an EU-wide returns agreement with a migrant quota, and the reinstatement of some visa rules for workers to continue to bring their families from overseas – would result in 250,000 more migrants a year compared to today.

Europe taking liberties with return-scheme rules

The main culprit is Starmer’s ever-lingering desire to cosy back up to Europe. An EU-returns policy is his flagship plan to stop the boats and “smash the gangs”, but the criminology experts show little faith that such a plan alone could hope to achieve it. Back when Britain was a member of the EU, we were signatories to the Dublin III regulation, which functions identically to a standard bilateral returns agreement. Such agreements have recently been highly effective in reducing Channel crossings amongst Albanians, for instance, who have gone from the largest ethnic group a few years ago to near-zero figures today. But the Dublin agreement is not effective.

It’s not ineffective because of the way its written or due to some ambiguity, but because our European partners take liberty with the letter, and undermine the spirit, of the rules. In the last few years of our involvement in Dublin III, the UK has a 38 per cent grant rate when EU nations attempted to return migrants to us when they had arrived first in the UK. The EU grant rate on British requests to return immigrants was 1 per cent.

In 2020, for instance, we made 8,502 requests to return illegal immigrants back to Europe, but only 105 were granted. That these people had clearly arrived on small boats from France is of little consequence – they just won’t take them back. While bilateral returns deals appear to work, because they’re in the interests of both parties, there’s little hope for a multilateral one where it relies on the French playing ball. In 2020, the Home Office managed to return only 43 migrants to France.

Families first?

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Starmer has also accepted the probable need for a “quid pro quo” – accepting a share of EU migrants – in exchange for securing this paperweight of a returns deal. Based on population, and adjusting for prosperity, the UK’s share would be at least another 124,614 people a year.

Another area is family visas. While Labour have been quiet about salary requirement increases, and removing the bizarre 20 per cent effective subsidy to immigrant labour, they have made a lot of noise about the “cruel” policy of not allowing families to stay together. Labour’s policy paper – ‘A future where families come first’ – fairly much precludes such a cut to numbers. But it’s a big one – 120,000 a year came through this route in the year to 2023.

These conclusions are only the very most probable of cases. There are indeed other areas where Starmer may or may not deviate from current government plans, explored at greater length in the HJS paper. But the answer, in a sentence, is that a Starmer government would mean more than 250,000 more immigrants a year, ceteris paribus, albeit with strong rhetoric about low-skilled wages and the need to hire UK-born workers.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim OBE is the founder and executive chair of the Scotland Institute and director of the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy

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