Keir Starmer is keen to tell you that there are no easy answers on immigration. Well, here’s one

<span>Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA</span>
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA

For months now, Keir Starmer has been at pains to tell the country that there are no easy answers to our problems. There is no magic money tree. We can’t spend what we haven’t got. We have to be realistic about the scorched earth a Labour government would inherit. This deliberate damping down of expectations doesn’t exactly make the heart sing, but it beats promising the earth to get elected and then trying awkwardly to wriggle out of it afterwards. What’s puzzling, however, is that this policy of brutally bursting voters’ bubbles never seems to be applied to immigration.

Last week’s Office for National Statistics figures, revising the net number of people coming to Britain in 2022 up to 745,000, were always going to induce apoplexy in the Conservative party, followed by the usual rhetoric about cutting the numbers in some draconian manner. But this time, Labour has met them halfway. The relatively new shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Darren Jones, suggested last weekend that Labour “probably would hope” to get immigration down in its first term, and when pressed on what would be a reasonable level, talked of “normal levels” being about a “couple of hundred thousand a year”. It wasn’t exactly an iron-clad commitment, but it’s nonetheless depressing to hear Labour falling back on the kind of promises that have been backfiring on the Tories ever since David Cameron vowed to reduce immigration to “tens of thousands”. It’s true that luck may be on Labour’s side, here: if the 2022 figures turn out to be a one-off, reflecting a labour market catching up with itself after a freeze on hiring and travelling during the pandemic, Labour could see immigration falling naturally on its watch anyway. But it’s nonetheless a wasted opportunity to level with the public about the real choices confronting a small country with an ageing population and a stagnant economy.

“Stop small boats, somehow” is now virtually the entirety of the present government’s immigration policy, to the point where voters could be forgiven for thinking it is Channel crossings that are driving the numbers so high. But the vast majority of the 1.23 million people who came to this country last year did so with the blessing of the government now feigning pantomime horror at their existence: they were granted leave to work, study, join family or seek sanctuary via compassionate routes like that offered to Ukrainians fleeing an invasion. Ministers signed off on two and a half times as many work visas last year as in 2019, with almost 40% of them for jobs in health and social care, for perfectly good reasons. Those jobs needed filling, and voters would not have liked the consequences of them standing empty. But ministerial reluctance to defend or explain those decisions has left the Tories in the farcical position of furiously trying to deflect attention instead to their own achilles heel, namely the small minority who came here illegally (85% of them in small boats).

Whether they like the idea of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda or not, polling suggests most voters don’t believe it’s ever going to happen. That the cabinet is now openly split over this policy only reinforces the impression of impotence and ramps up public anxiety, while obscuring what small progress Rishi Sunak’s government has actually managed to make. Home Office figures show the number of Albanians arriving by small boat plummeting from about 11,500 in 2022 to the end of September, to just 860 in the same period in 2023, suggesting the policy of rapid returns to Albania might have borne fruit. Channel crossings have consequently fallen, even as illegal immigration is rising across the rest of Europe. Yet by noisily banging its head against a brick wall marked Rwanda, the government has somehow managed to make even this modest success look like a failure – which helps explain why the new home secretary, James Cleverly, is now arguing that what matters is stopping the boats, rather than getting hung up on exactly how it’s done. But even if ministers had somehow managed to turn around every single dinghy leaving a French beach last year, legal migration would still have hit record levels.

So here’s what a prospective government would say if it were really honest: that the vast majority of immigration to Britain is the result of conscious choices to deliver things people actively want, such as an NHS that has a fighting chance of not collapsing this winter or universities that don’t go bust for lack of foreign students. Stopping it is, of course, technically possible, but the price will be public services falling over plus another dismal decade of low to nonexistent economic growth.

You want a radical immigration strategy? Here’s one: fund social care properly, so that care workers earn the kind of wage that makes this emotionally demanding, physically strenuous and technically skilled job attractive. Better still, create career pathways for them to progress in care as a profession. Not only would it vastly improve the continuity of care for vulnerable people, while saving several councils from going bust as a result of rising social care bills, but eventually ministers wouldn’t have to issue 77,700 care work visas a year to plug the gaps (though of course it would still take years to train a homegrown workforce).

But if that’s too radical – if you’d rather have tax cuts today, pretend the crisis in social care isn’t happening and just roll the dice on what happens to your parents in old age – then you’ll need cheap foreign labour to come and prop the system up. Of course, Jeremy Hunt did his best to pretend otherwise in his autumn statement, suggesting that somehow the long-term sick could be forced back to work as an alternative to rising immigration under Labour. It beggars belief that the kind of measures ministers are suggesting – asking disabled people to look for jobs they can do from home, for instance – are somehow a viable alternative, even if it could be achieved without the cruelty some see as inevitable. (How many social care jobs do you imagine can be done from the end of a phone? Who is going to provide the routine medical treatment that in some cases is standing in the way of them getting back to work in the first place?) There is no magic third way. Those are the choices.

At a time when the far right is on the rise across Europe, British politicians remain understandably nervous of spelling out such home truths. The Labour party’s traditional aim in the runup to an election isn’t to win the argument over immigration outright, so much as to change the subject. But in government, that isn’t going to cut it. If it is serious about power, sooner or later Labour will have to have that fight.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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