Immigration & the UK General Election: lots of hot air, but where’s the substance?

By Erica Consterdine

I was asked recently which political party has the most comprehensive immigration policy. I was stumped. Not through ignorance so much as the lack of policy substance announced by any of the parties.

Perhaps this simply reflects the age-old strategy of parties keeping their cards close to their chest, and with the launch of the manifestos this week we’ll see some ground breaking, comprehensive policy packages. Nonetheless, it seems an electorally odd move to reveal so little for so long given that immigration is consistently polled as a top three voting issue, as has been the case for some time. So what do we know about the parties’ plans? What are the solutions put forward? Or are they at a loose end themselves?

The Party with the most consistent message and clear policy direction is ironically the UK Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, is a fringe party whose prime policy objective is to withdraw Britain from the EU; they currently have two MPs who defected from the Tories in by-elections in 2014. One doesn’t even need to read their manifesto to know that UKIP sees immigration as the source of most of Britain’s problems, including unemployment, pressures on the NHS and public services and crime. The net migration target partly fell flat on the Tories’ face because EU states cannot limit EU immigration once transitional controls have lapsed. So UKIP’s message is simple and in-line with the underlying hard euroskepticism which founded the Party: exit the EU and all will be fine. The message is unrealistic and inflexible but nonetheless comprehensive within UKIP’s terms.

What of the other fringe parties which make-up what leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon calls the progressive alliance? The Greens certainly have the most rooted and ideologically coherent vision of what their policy would look like. For the Greens, immigration is driven by the wider inequalities in the global system, thus equality of regions, including international action and willingness to share resources, is key to achieving immigration control.

The Greens lay out three conditions in which communities and regions should have the right to restrict immigration. These are premised on ecological sustainability, the protection of minority indigenous groups and, interestingly, if. the prospective migrants have, on average, equal or greater economic power than the residents of the recipient area and they or their families were not forced to leave the area in the recent past.

The policy direction is fairly clear – that they will progressively reduce immigration controls, particularly those related to detention and any rules that inhibit the protection of family life. There’s a fair amount of substance in the Green’s policy on these specific issues in contrast to the other parties. Yet whether they consider current immigration figures acceptable or not is far from clear.

For the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) this is likely an area which the Party have had to improvise on the detail, following the blow of not securing independence in 2014. The SNP are a nationalist and social democratic party who campaign for Scottish independence, they hold six seats in Parliament. Plaid Cymru – the Party of Wales is a similarly nationalist Party who campaign for Welsh independence and currently hold three seats in the Commons. The SNP, like Plaid Cymru, want a federal immigration policy where the Scottish and Welsh governments respectively can tinker with work and student immigration to reflect the specific needs of their economies. Scotland already has this to some extent, with a separate shortage list for skilled occupations from the rest of the UK, and some previous small initiatives such as the Fresh Talent Scheme.

It is highly unlikely that the Home Office will concede any further controls to the devolved states, but it is certainly a credible idea ─ not too dissimilar to the Liberal Democrats regional proposals on immigration in the 2010 campaign. Suffice to say that’s not something we’ll be hearing from Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrat Party Nick Clegg again.

Back in 2010 Clegg also proposed an amnesty for irregular migrants who had resided in the UK for the previous ten years. Again, not something we’ll be hearing from Clegg or indeed any of the dominant parties. With the baggage Clegg is carrying, the lack of a coherent immigration policy is really the least of his problems.

What we’ve heard so far is a lot of pride, not unjustifiably, in the Liberal Democrats’ relatively successful endeavors to end detention of unaccompanied minors. Rather oddly the other snippets we’ve heard, including on their website, express their delight in cutting immigration by a third. This is bizarre for two reasons. Firstly their complete backtrack on what was a reasonably positive rhetoric on immigration five years ago, and their cosmopolitan Europhile ideology, which lends itself to supporting EU mobility. Secondly, because the government has conceded publicly that they have failed to cut net migration, and that it is in fact higher than when the Coalition entered office. It doesn’t matter too much what Clegg says on immigration anyway, any disaffected voters they’ve lost are unlikely to clamber back to the party based on this issue.

The same cannot be said for Labour. This will be a key issue for them, one in which they could lose potential voters if the policy isn’t right. In turn, it is apparently a core election pledge to control immigration, one which Labour launched with a controversial mug. Nobody’s clear on precisely what this means, but again it’s familiar terrain indistinguishable from the Tories’ or New Labour’s rhetoric.

Immigration is arguably the most problematic issue for Labour; it brings the contradictory ideological pulls of the Party to the fore – that between their cosmopolitan internationalism wing and the labour market protectionism which founded the Party. Labour’s expansive managed migration policy certainly didn’t please the electorate, and they paid the price in 2010. Miliband knows this, and therefore cannot stop apologizing for the ‘mistakes’ his party made. This is the most consistent message from Labour.

Other policies that have been trailed include new laws to prevent employers undercutting wages, an enforcement of the minimum wage, and reintroducing exit checks.. This is without doubt a nod to their traditional core constituents, but nonetheless has merit in recognizing the links between labour rights and immigration.

And what of the Tories now that their key pledge, in fact personal promise, to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands has decisively failed. They will surely never make a pledge based on figures again. The Conservatives will always deploy tough rhetoric on immigration, even if they do make concessions behind Whitehall doors to the City of London to keep their business wing happy.

So we’ll of course see more tough talk, but policy substance is again lacking. They seem to be out of ideas so they’ve moved the terrain to EU membership. In particular tackling benefit tourism, epitomized by both Cameron’s statement that immigration and welfare are two sides of the same coin, and their website where their policy statement combines the two. A classic, understandable yet deplorable move to welfare chauvinism then, in line with many far right parties across Western Europe.

Further abuses and misuses of the system will apparently be tackled, although how many bogus colleges left to be shut down remains to be seen. Finally, yet another new citizen test will be introduced, with more indefinable ‘British values’ at its heart.

The three dominant parties have deployed the rhetoric of control, tackling abuses, and fairness. This is hardly a surprise given that the public’s anxieties about immigration keep on rising. A concern partially fuelled by the elite’s consistent refrain that immigration is out of control; a message which concedes that there is a problem to be solved, legitimizes UKIP’s rhetoric and in turn forces them to be seen to be taking action. It’s an own goal, which bizarrely none of the leaders seem to realize.

But perhaps such concerns from the electorate are precisely because no party has advanced a coherent, realistic, multifaceted and above all long-term vision of an optimal immigration policy. Less of the buzzwords and a bit of substance might pave the way towards a real debate on immigration, one which might actually win votes.

Erica is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Politics/SCMR at University of Sussex. Her research focuses on immigration policy and policymaking in Western Europe.

One comment

  1. It’s pretty depressing that UKIP are still involved at all and even worse that they seem the only party likely to stick to a manifesto:


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