OPINION - What does Keir Starmer actually think about immigration?

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

One of the hardest things to get as Leader of the Opposition is a hearing. Who cares what you have to say when even the parliamentary under-secretary at the department for not much has more executive power than you? But things change when you are 20+ points ahead in the polls.

A day after Rishi Sunak addressed the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), where he dismissed the idea of substantially closer ties with the EU and business’s pleas for more low-skill immigration, it was the turn of Keir Starmer.

The Labour leader restated his policy to “make Brexit work” and warned the assembled business leaders that they must wean themselves off “immigration dependency” and “cheap labour” from overseas. His new deal for business is this: any higher immigration will come with strings attached – investing in skills, training and technology.

A lot of this is rhetorical. Labour wants little more than to lance the boil of Brexit and immigration. At the same time, Britain is facing a labour shortage. It’s not all Brexit-related, but leaving the EU raised significant barriers to immigration from the continent, hitting low-wage sectors such as hospitality and farming particularly hard.

The thing with Starmer is it’s not clear how much of it he means. Of course, it’s always dangerous to assume politicians don’t believe what they say. But Starmer won the leadership of his party by effectively promising Corbynism without Corbyn. That was swiftly ditched.

I’m not suggesting a Labour government would turn around on day one and say ‘Jokes, we’re actually going to apply to join the EU, euro and Schengen without a referendum’. But Starmer knows that closer ties to Europe and higher immigration are two pro-growth policies he could pursue.

It has been less than two years since the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the free trade deal between the EU and the UK, was signed. It is a malleable document designed to be built upon. And it will – what does “make Brexit work” mean if not crossing Tory red lines and edging closer to Europe?

The UK may have left the EU and ended the free movement of people, but so much else is up for grabs. That is why the ERG and Brexit die-hards are jumpy. Their project is not going well, it is making Britain poorer, and while we can’t easily rejoin, we can get a lot closer.

From Starmer’s perspective, perhaps best in that case to sound tough – on immigration and Brexit – while being as vague as possible, leaving maximum flexibility (ideally married with a large parliamentary majority) to do what he wants with in government.

In the comment pages, Business Editor Jonathan Prynn welcomes the return of sub-6% fixed-term mortgages, but warns that millions will continue to pay a heavy price for the disastrous Trussonomics experiment for years to come.

Features writer Katie Strick has ditched the fancy fitness studios for her local council gym, where she’s found joy in the community of women. While Chief Football Correspondent Dan Kilpatrick waxes lyrical over Jude Bellingham’s performance, after the teenager opened the scoring in his first world cup appearance.

And finally, what happens when you wake up to find your photo being used to scam people out of fake phones on Facebook? Inside the rise of social media identity theft (and what to do about it).

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