Something significant happened this week. Labour confirmed its position as a party advocating lower immigration than the Conservatives.
When a Redfield and Wilton opinion poll this month asked which party could be trusted to handle immigration, and 31 per cent of people said Labour, while only 24 per cent said the Conservatives, this reflected disillusionment with the government rather than approval of the opposition.
Public opinion believes that immigration is too high, and so when the figures reached successive record levels, as they have since the 2021 numbers were reported early last year, disapproval of the government followed. It is true that attitudes towards immigration have become more liberal since the Brexit vote. It is also true that public opinion is favourable to many categories of immigrant – nurses, care workers, skilled workers, Ukrainians, Hong Kongers, Afghan translators and co-combatants, some students, “genuine” refugees. Yet a clear majority of the British people think that the total should come down, and criticise the Tories for their failure to deliver on their promise.
Labour’s advantage on this issue is historically exceptional, just as it is on tax. The Tories, more so than Labour, are perceived as the high-tax party, which is a natural response to the Tories presiding over a tax burden at a 70-year high, while Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, carefully avoids proposing tax rises except on non-doms, private equity funds and the parents of children at private schools.
But this week, Labour did more than simply offer bland platitudes on immigration policy. The party had previously dropped its support for free movement across Europe since we left the EU single market, and adopted the meaningless formula of a points-based system, which tells us nothing until we know how many points would-be immigrants are awarded for what.
On Wednesday, the day before the new immigration figures were published, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, announced that a Labour government would “scrap rules that allow overseas workers coming to the UK to be paid 20 per cent less than the going rate for that job”.
This was an ingenious strike, allowing Labour to outflank the Tories by opposing the undercutting of British workers by foreigners. The current rules allow employers to hire workers in shortage occupations at 20 per cent below the “going rate”, which is defined in such a way as to represent the typical entry-level pay for those jobs.
Who knows how it would work in practice? It would presumably make it more expensive to recruit senior care workers and home care workers, two jobs that are on the shortage occupations list. But its political significance is great: it means that Labour is now more restrictive on immigration than the government.
The interpersonal politics are interesting. The policy has been presented as a team effort by Cooper and her team, including Stephen Kinnock, the shadow immigration minister. It was deployed with good effect by Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions, quietening speculation about poor relations between Starmer and Cooper, who are said to have been “hardly speaking” to each other in recent months.
And the policy was backed by Rachel Reeves, who is close to Starmer, in her speech in Washington DC. She declared that “globalisation is dead” – in other words, that the New Labour presumption in favour of free trade, including the free-ish movement of workers, is over.
The big question, though, is whether Labour’s conversion to the cause of lower immigration than the Tories is robust and credible enough to survive in the furnace of an election campaign.
There are the obvious problems with it. One is the party’s recent adherence not just to the cause of free movement in the EU – and the open secret that nearly all Labour MPs would like to reverse Brexit although they will not say so – but also to the Corbyn-era rhetoric on migrants’ rights that often came close to an open borders policy.
Another is that the government may restrict immigration further, after its decision this week to ban most students from bringing dependants with them. The Tories must be likely, among other restrictions, to copy Labour’s policy of abolishing the 20 per cent pay discount in shortage occupations.
So it may be that, although opinion polls suggest that Labour is favoured on immigration policy now, as a “protest vote” against the government’s perceived failings, closer to the election voters will revert to their historical assumption that the Tories are likely to be more restrictive than Labour.
That is what I expect to happen on tax: whatever the short-term reaction to recent tax rises might be, the likelihood is that, other things being equal, a Labour government would tax more and spend more than a Conservative government. Starmer said it himself at the launch of Labour’s health mission on Monday, when he declined to give a specific spending pledge: “The NHS is always better funded under Labour.”
But it is possible that immigration policy could be different. Starmer could make a determined and principled case for a closed British labour market. Reeves in Washington echoed the “left-wing” case for Brexit, arguing that ending the import of cheap labour would force British employers to pay their workers more and train them for higher-skilled jobs.
That is a long tradition in the British labour movement, suppressed but not defeated by New Labour – it was Gordon Brown, after all, who spoke of “British jobs for British workers”. I was reminded of it by reading the latest volume of diaries by Chris Mullin, the Bennite free-thinker and former Labour minister, in which he argues for highly restrictive policies on immigration. He suggests that a border zone in Libya should be set up under a “UN mandate”, where asylum applications could be processed – “and those who don’t qualify (the overwhelming majority) should be returned forthwith to their country of origin”.
He even suggests that the UK has granted the right to settle to too many Hong Kong residents: “Were it up to me, I would offer asylum only to those most directly at risk rather than opening the floodgates.”
If Starmer went all out for Mullinism, he would probably provoke a rebellion in the party. But it is quite possible that Labour could fight the election with a more “conservative” position on immigration than the government, largely because of decisions taken by Boris Johnson as prime minister. Johnson “took back control” of immigration policy only to lose it, as many voters see it.
In the past, Labour’s ambition has always been to neutralise immigration as an election issue. This time, Starmer can imagine it as a vote winner for his party.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies