Keir Starmer pledges to slash ‘sky-high’ migration numbers under a Labour government

Keir Starmer is facing a backlash from activists and unions after he promised to slash “sky-high” net migration if Labour wins the election.

The Labour leader said last year’s 685,000 figure has “got to come down” as he vowed to “control our borders and make sure British businesses are helped to hire Brits first”.

But both he and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper have refused to set a target – or a timeline – for their plans.

Ms Cooper also refused to rule out sending asylum seekers to have their claims processed abroad, a move which, unlike Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda plan, would not necessarily be a one-way ticket.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer vowed to curb immigration (PA Wire)
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer vowed to curb immigration (PA Wire)

Home secretary James Cleverly accused the Labour leader of pandering to voters.

“This is yet another day where Starmer will say what he thinks people want to hear during an election because he lacks conviction to say what he believes. A Labour government would allow open-door immigration, making the UK a magnet for illegal migrants,” he said.

Left-wing campaign group Momentum told The Independent that the Labour leader’s plan would put members off campaigning for the party between now and polling day.

A spokesperson for the group said: “Four years ago, Keir promised to make the positive case for immigration and build a system based on compassion and dignity. He’s done quite the opposite, embracing not just [ex-Tory MP] Natalie Elphicke but her anti-migrant politics. Labour should stop embracing the Tories’ race to the bottom and set out a new approach, including expanded safe routes for refugees.”

It is not the first time Labour has come under fire from its own activists over migration plans. In 2015, it faced attacks from members after it released a branded mug that promised “Controls on immigration”.

Gary Smith, general secretary of the GMB union, also warned against “getting into a divisive agenda” on the issue. He told Times Radio: “We have to have migration in our economy. Clearly, people will expect that to be managed and done properly. What I am concerned about is getting into a divisive agenda around migration and immigration, something that is being exploited by the right to try and put fear into people. The truth is we need migrant workers in our economy.”

The migration plan will be part of Labour’s election manifesto.

Included will be new laws to ban law-breaking employers from hiring foreign workers and to train more Britons.

A Labour government would bar bosses who break employment law – for example, by failing to pay workers the minimum wage – from hiring staff from overseas.

Rishi Sunak at the launch of the Conservative campaign bus at Redcar Racecourse (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak at the launch of the Conservative campaign bus at Redcar Racecourse (PA Wire)

It would also legislate to link the immigration system to training, with businesses applying for foreign worker visas having to also train Britons to do the jobs.

The immigration debate has been fuelled by the latest figures, which were published a day after Rishi Sunak called the surprise election date.

Labour declined to set a target, but last year shadow cabinet minister Darren Jones said a Labour government would cut net migration to a “couple of hundred thousand a year” within five years, a figure he described as “normal”. Ms Cooper said the party would not set a target because when the Conservatives did so – and failed to meet it – it “discredited the whole system”.

Making the announcement, Sir Keir told the Sun on Sunday: “Read my lips – I will bring immigration numbers down. If you trust me with the keys to No 10, I will make you this promise: I will control our borders and make sure British businesses are helped to hire Brits first.”

He said the 685,000 migration number has “got to come down”.

Sir Keir said employers had become “too reliant” on workers from overseas and “should always have a choice of recruiting a British worker first”.

The Migration Advisory Committee, Industrial Strategy Council and Skills England would be brought together to deliver the plan.

Sir Keir said the move would also help reduce the benefits bill.

The plans were backed by Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti, who is on the left of the party.

She said the principle was one she could “get behind and it is not nasty… like the [PM’s] Rwanda plan”.

The Conservatives accused Labour of a “U-turn” on Sir Keir’s principles. “This is the man who voted against tougher border controls 139 times,” a spokesperson added.

Conservative candidate, and former minister Jonathan Gullis said that “nobody buys” Sir Keir’s plans.

Scotland’s SNP health secretary Neil Gray described the policy as “gutless economic self-harm”.

The party’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn accused Labour of a “race to the right wing” and warned the plan could impact key public services.

The Greens also accused Sir Keir of “stoking division and adopting the anti-migrant rhetoric of Nigel Farage ... instead of welcoming the important role people choosing to work in the UK play.”