Conservatives will be punished for their abysmal record on immigration

It is difficult to imagine how little role immigration played in the 2019 election. The Conservative manifesto promised nothing more than an Australian-style points system and a vague promise that “overall figures will fall”, especially at the lower levels. The Labor manifesto devoted two of its 107 pages to this topic, much of which dealt with compensation for the victims of the Windrush scandal.

Five years later, the scene has changed somewhat. All aspects of migration, legal and illegal, have once again acquired enormous political relevance. In between acts of desperation, both Number 10 and Conservative MPs muse to journalists about the possibility of small elections, or of an ECHR election (to leave to stop the small boats) or of immigration elections. Yet Rishi Sunak, so decisive on issues such as maths in schools and the axing of train lines, has doubted for so long that he will be lucky to run as party leader in the January 2025 election (an increasingly likely prospect).

The problem for the Conservatives, of course, is that it is difficult to organize an election on immigration if they have only the problem to blame. They promised lower numbers and more highly skilled migrants; they ended up with higher numbers and more low-skilled migrants. They promised to stop the small boats, but the numbers only drop when there is a strong storm in the English Channel. They promised Rwanda as the panacea for those arriving in rubber boats, but have only succeeded in increasing Rwandan GDP.

While the Conservatives are doomed whatever they do, the hope is that by talking tough on immigration and floating plans that they will never get a chance to implement, this will stem the flow towards reform and perhaps bring Labor into the trap will ensue. But the party can never sidestep migration reform, and all Labor has to do is make vague noises about reducing numbers and not screw it up like the Tories did to defuse the issue.

But neither party will, at least not explicitly, address the core of Britain’s immigration problem. Many on the right think the Tories deliberately abandoned their immigration policy because they did not try hard enough to reduce numbers, or because they were not mentally committed to the task. In other words, it is the ‘wish it harder and it will come true’ theory of governance.

But what’s really driving Britain’s record immigration numbers is the economy, quite simply – or rather how the British economy is structured, often by the government’s own incentives and policies. Take foreign students for example. Successive governments have frozen tuition fees for home students while pushing universities to behave like businesses.

The result is that British universities, eager to balance their books, have admitted thousands of foreign students, sometimes lowering standards. One may regret the outcome, but it is not clear whether it was the result of deliberate political malpractice. After all, not raising tuition fees and encouraging universities to become more commercially oriented are both perfectly reasonable policies in themselves.

The same goes for migration and the NHS, whose dependence on foreign workers is often praised as a positive immigration story. But the NHS’s dependence on foreign workers is the result of Britain failing to train enough doctors and nurses, and then paying those it trains so poorly that they fly to Australia instead. Again, defensible in theory (not to mention that it makes it easier to balance the books, at least in the short term), but problematic in the long term.

None of these examples fit on an election poster, let alone a tweet. If the next general election is indeed about immigration, as the Tories hope, it will not occur to any extent. But if Keir Starmer is serious about governing, he will have to consider what to do about it.