Politics

'They need to decide which side they're on': Labour's manifesto pledges on immigration, explained

Experts say some of Labour's immigration plans are unclear, while others barely differ from existing Tory policies. We've dived into the detail of what the likely next government is promising

Bibby Stockholm protest

Protesters outside the Bibby Stockholm, which has been used to house asylum seekers. Image: Stephen and Helen Jones/Flickr

Immigration forms one of Keir Starmer’s six “first steps” for change, if he wins the 4 July general election. At today’s (13 June) Labour manifesto launch in Manchester he unveiled the detail of those plans – but what do they mean?

The most eye-catching promise of an already-trailed manifesto is a new Border Security Command, funded by scrapping the government’s Rwanda scheme.

Speaking before Starmer, deputy leader Angela Rayner repeated Labour’s asylum slogan: they will “smash the smuggling gangs“. But what do their plans on asylum and immigration mean? We’ve already broken down the Tories’ plans – here we deep dive into Starmer’s policies. Will they work? And how much do they differ from current government policies?

Keir Starmer has promised to cut net migration

Like the Conservatives, Labour is looking to cut net migration. However, whereas Sunak has promised to cut it by half, with a legally binding cap agreed by parliament from that point, Starmer’s manifesto does not have a clear figure.

It will also “end the long-term reliance on overseas workers in some parts of the economy”, by training workers in key sectors. These are two sides of the same coin, said Jonathan Thomas, senior fellow at the Social Market Foundation think tank.

“Labour’s plan is to reduce net migration by reducing the UK’s demand for overseas workers by training and upskilling local workers and improving working conditions,” Thomas said.

“Key to success here will be willingness to stick with a plan that will take time to yield results, but also, in the context of economic growth, to balance the requirements so as to be sufficiently challenging, but also practicably workable, for business.”

These plans will face challenges if Labour forms a government, said Dr Ben Brindle, researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

“First, it can take time to train workers, so many of these gaps would not be filled immediately. Second, the level of demand for skills is not fixed. For example, if the UK trained engineers, employers may increase their demand for engineers – this means the skill gap would still exist,” Brindle said.

“It’s not clear how Labour’s plan to ban employers who break employment law from hiring migrant workers would be different to existing restrictions on sponsors. There are rules to this effect already in place,” Brindle said.

Labour’s plan for asylum seekers, illegal immigration and small boats crossings

Both parties have pledged an end to the use of hotels to accommodate asylum seekers. 

Labour’s plan involves hiring additional caseworkers to process claims. It will also hire 1,000 staff to a new “returns and enforcement unit”, deporting failed asylum seekers.

Brindle said a policy to increase security cooperation with the EU looked, on the face of it, similar to existing Tory policies. “However, the current government already had this focus. Therefore, their policies may not have much of an impact on small boat crossings – the devil will be in the detail,” said Brindle.

But immigration expert Zoe Gardner said there was too little information to judge the chances of success.

“It’s hard to know what to make of Labour’s positions on immigration and asylum because there is so little tangible detail in the manifesto. You can tease out sentences that could be interpreted to mean something good, but that really isn’t enough,” said Gardner.

“There has been a marked increase in racist anti-migrant rhetoric during this election campaign, Labour needs to decide which side of this they’re going to fall on, and after reading their manifesto, I’m simply none the wiser.”

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