While the three main parties’ manifestos reveal a more nuanced approach to immigration than in previous campaigns, there will be plenty of blanks to fill in for future policy, no matter who wins on the election, explains Marley Morris.
So far in this election campaign, migration has largely bubbled under the surface of public debate, given the overriding focus on the parties’ spending plans and the ongoing clashes over Brexit. But a study of the party’s manifestos suggests that, despite this lack of focus, the election is almost certain to be a turning point for migration policy. All three of the main parties are pledging a new direction on migration, signalling a difference in approach from Theresa May’s punitive and restrictive agenda. Yet while the direction is broadly positive, the detail is sorely lacking.
The Conservative manifesto struck a purposefully different note on immigration compared to its platform under Theresa May. It is true that, just as in 2017, the overarching aim of the Conservative immigration policy is to end freedom of movement and bring overall numbers down. But this time round, there is a new liberal tone to the agenda: the much-derided net migration target has been jettisoned and there are a range of proposals intended to liberalise the system, from a fast-track visa for NHS professionals to a post-study work route for international students and a start-up visa for entrepreneurs.
Responding to last year’s Windrush scandal, the manifesto says ‘we will overhaul the immigration system, and make it more fair and compassionate’. While the 2017 manifesto talked primarily of bearing down on immigration, the language of the new manifesto is centred on control, contribution and fairness. Yet at the heart of the Conservative offer on immigration is a striking ambiguity. The manifesto promises a new ‘Australian-style’ points-based system. This is a popular idea with voters, as attested by British Future and Hope not Hate’s National Conversation on Immigration. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is more a slogan than a policy – one intended to symbolise a hard-line approach to immigration while simultaneously offering reassuring signals to business. How this plays out in practice is less clear.
On the one hand, a points-based system could signal a shift towards introducing faster pathways to settlement, greater powers for nations and regions to determine their own skills needs, and new visa routes that prioritise the personal characteristics of applicants over stringent salary requirements – all hallmarks of the Australian model. On the other hand, it could signal a more selective approach, heaping on additional requirements for migrants to make it harder to enter the UK for work.
The matter is further confused by the manifesto’s claim that ‘most people coming into the country will need a clear job offer’. This is notably in tension with the points-based proposal, given one of the distinctive aspects of the Australian policy is that some work visas allow migrants to enter the country without an employer to sponsor them. As for the promise that Windrush was ‘horrific’ and that ‘we will ensure it never happens again’ – this is welcome but needs to be backed by firm and concrete action, given the ongoing injustice suffered by the Windrush generation and the risks of a new crisis emerging for EU citizens after Brexit.
If the Conservative manifesto aims to now steer immigration policy away from the approach adopted under Theresa May’s tenure, the Labour manifesto intends to change course entirely. Labour‘s commitments to rolling back the hostile environment, tackling the exploitation of migrants, and addressing skills shortages in the economy mark a change in direction to a more positive agenda on immigration. But apart from some very specific proposals – such as repealing the 2014 Immigration Act, including the ‘right to rent’ landlord checks, and closing the Yarl’s Wood and Brook House detention centres – there is again a lack of detail in their future plans. What will their new immigration system look like? How precisely will they end the ‘hostile environment’ and what will be the outcome of their review of border controls? And what approach do they intend to adopt in negotiating on freedom of movement with the EU?
Lastly, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto perhaps provides the most detail on immigration. As with Labour, they set out a number of proposals marking a decisive break with the status quo, including maintaining freedom of movement, ensuring asylum seekers have the right to work after three months, and repealing various elements of the hostile environment. But even here the core elements of a future immigration system are shrouded in obscurity.
The Liberal Democrats propose to replace visas for skilled workers with a ‘more flexible merit-based system’. But this leaves open a whole host of questions relating to how such a policy should work in practice – and how indeed it differs from the Conservatives’ proposal for an ‘Australian-style’ points-based system.
All three of the main parties’ manifestos reveal a more nuanced approach to immigration than in previous election campaigns. There is a welcome recognition that arbitrary numerical targets have failed. There is a renewed focus on developing an immigration system that supports the UK’s economic ambitions. And in light of the Windrush scandal, there is – albeit to varying degrees – an acknowledgment of the flaws and iniquities in the current approach to immigration enforcement. But there will be plenty of blanks to fill in for future immigration policy, no matter who wins on 12 December.