Menu Close

UK election 2019: how the main parties compare on immigration

Britain is heading to the polls for the fourth time in four years. Immigration dominated much of the 2015 general election and was at the heart of the referendum debate. With the manifestos out, it’s time to reflect on what the parties propose on immigration.

In essence, the Conservatives want to “fix” the system they’ve been running for the past nine years but are vague about how that might look. Labour has again struggled to reconcile its two halves. But where Labour fails to be radical on immigration, the Liberal Democrats have stepped up – though perhaps the luxury of knowing you won’t take charge at Number 10 always lends to creative if fanciful thinking.

Public concern about immigration may have dominated party debates, but the tide is shifting. The public are more open to immigration, and it is less important as a voting issue. With that, both the Lib Dems and Labour show that advocating for migrant rights is no longer political suicide. But those seeking clarity on immigration from the main parties before voting will be left wanting.

Conservatives: a points based system

The government of the day’s manifesto, headlined with “getting Brexit done”, sets out its intention to end free movement and, with that, to have “fewer low-skilled migrants”. Plans to establish a temporary youth mobility scheme for EU nationals seem to have been abandoned.

The net migration target would also be officially abandoned, replaced with the rather vague: “overall numbers will come down”. There’s no mention of scrapping the hostile environment, so that would presumably continue despite criticism.

The Conservatives pledge a “fair and firm” system and would introduce a fast-track NHS visa for those with job offers, while also increasing NHS surcharges for immigrants. Technology and science gradates who “win top scientific prizes” would also be offered fast track entry to the UK. The proposal of introducing a “start-up visa” is also touted.

But the pillar of the plan is the coveted if obscure “points-based system” (PBS). Inspired by Australia’s approach, this would be a way of selecting who is able to come to the UK based on various characteristics – such as their educational qualifications, language proficiency, work experience and occupation.

This manifesto offers no clarity on how the new PBS would work. All that is promised is that migrants would have a “good grasp of English”, be law-abiding and have “good education and qualifications”, but no details on what standard those would be assessed at. Would different attributes receive points in a flexible way? Would a job offer be the prerequisite before all other attributes? Would this job offer need to be at a particular salary? The vagueness here makes the Lib Dems and Labour’s plans look positively meticulous.

Labour: tackle the labour market

Immigration is an issue Labour struggles to “win” as it somewhat splits its voters -– between the cosmopolitan internationalists at ease with diversity and the protectionists wanting less immigration. This division has been palpable in Labour’s ambiguous stance on Brexit until recently.

Party members voted at conference this year to move to a much more open borders policy, pledging to “maintain and extend free movement rights”. But that has disappeared from this manifesto.

Instead, Labour says it would negotiate a new Brexit deal and free movement will be “subject to negotiation” – although it would also seek to “protect those rights”. But if the right to move and work in another state is being negotiated then it’s surely not being protected.

The main parties all have radically different approaches to handling the number of people that move to the UK. Shutterstock

Read more: What's happened to UK migration since the EU referendum – in four graphs

But under a Labour government EU nationals would be granted voting rights and the current settlement scheme would be replaced with a non-mandatory declaratory scheme. In this scheme EU nationals would automatically be granted the right to continue living and working in the UK and would voluntarily register to gain proof of their status.

At the heart of Labour’s immigration offering is enhancing the rights of migrants. Ending the hostile environment, indefinite detention and minimum income thresholds for spouses are all positive measures. But the Liberal Democrats have made bolder promises here.

Like the previous two manifestos, the emphasis on tackling unscrupulous employers, exploitation and undercutting is all here. But there’s curiously less detail. Strengthening labour standards enforcement, such as the The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which investigates all aspects of labour exploitation in England and Wales, is absent for instance.

While there’s little substance in the immigration chapter, clues can be found in Labour’s work proposals. The thread of this manifesto lies in “the biggest extension of workers rights in history” and radical changes to the labour market. The manifesto proposes to push for a higher living wage, ban overseas-only recruitment, scrap the gig economy and bring collective bargaining to the fore. The implication is a decrease in labour market flexibility, in turn reducing the demand for migrant labour. So while the plans for immigration appear to lack ambition, significant change would come about as a result of radical proposals for the wider economy.

Liberal Democrats: away from the Home Office

The Lib Dems have a much clearer and simpler plan on the free movement conundrum – simply to revoke Article 50.

There’s a lot of consistency with Labour here on migrant rights. But the Lib Dems go further on their humanitarian commitments than Labour, and would bring in a 28-day limit on immigration detention and a long overdue pledge of granting asylum seekers the right to work. That said, even they couldn’t resist the stale proposals of “investing in officers, training and technology to prevent illegal entry at Britain’s borders”.

But the big story here, and where the Liberal Democrats have been far more radical than their Labour counterparts, is a major restructure of how the government runs its immigration policy. Immigration wouldn’t be in the Home Office’s remit anymore and would be separated to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy , the Department for International Development and the Department for Education.

The logic for this is understandable. The Home Office has long had a reputation of incompetence underpinned by a culture of caution – epitomised with the Windrush Scandal and problems with the EU settlement scheme.

These proposals are bold and grounded in a rational and astute logic that different types of immigration are better managed by the departments affected. But with rational policy-making comes a cost. Spreading the same operative immigration functions across departments would be very challenging. The scope of discretion and thus inconsistent decision-making would be huge, and the level of effective joined up government -– something Whitehall has always struggled with – seems improbable.

Click here to subscribe to our newsletter if you believe this election should be all about the facts.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 186,900 academics and researchers from 4,996 institutions.

Register now