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The Truth About Immigration That Sunak and Starmer Aren’t Willing to Tell you About

Both party leaders are promising to slash immigration numbers without being honest about the big costs it will inevitably bring to our economy and public services

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow work and pensions secretary, Liz Kendall meet pensioners to talk about the impact of the energy crisis and cost of living during a visit to the Bridge Cafe in Bolton. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

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Like some grisly ghost of Brexit past, Nigel Farage’s net-zero immigration pledge hovered all over last night’s election debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer.

Like the Reform Party leader, both major parties have promised to reduce net immigration, but unlike him, neither have tried to pluck out a number for exactly by how much. They’re choosing to keep their targets vague, not only because of their terrible record of hitting them, or even because the other party could simply gazump them by immediately setting their number 10% lower, but because if they put a number on how much you’re going to cut immigration by, they’d then be forced to put a price on it, too.

The great unspoken truth, which neither leader wants to talk about in this election, is that there is a real cost, in lost tax revenue and skills, to cutting immigration numbers. We may decide it’s a cost we’re willing to take over the long term, but we need to be honest about what that means and approach it within a system that puts the viability of our public services first, above populist slogans about migrant numbers. 

The truth is that it will be impossible in the short to medium term to keep health and care costs low and provide the workforce our aging population needs, while significantly cutting immigration. Moving towards a model that better funds social care and the NHS, including increasing pay for workers, is a longer-term necessity, but it isn’t one the politicians touting migrant scapegoats seem willing to properly take on.

The public’s priorities on the cost of living and protecting the NHS far outstrip concerns about immigration, so the failure to reckon with the impacts of cutting numbers may come back to bite the government that has to deal with the fall-out of falling migrant numbers.

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Few people will trust Sunak’s latest pledge of a cap on numbers, even as he points to the demonstrable fact that numbers are at last falling somewhat from their record highs. The most recent statistics told of a modest reduction, but the trend points to a much more significant drop over the coming years. So it’s true the Conservatives have belatedly made moves to reduce migrant numbers – a cynic might suggest they’ve done so just in time for the workforce and economic impacts of the drop to be felt under a Labour administration, that will then be forced into some unpalatable political choices on how to respond if it refuses to make the case now for the value of immigration.

What’s really remarkable is how comparatively little public backlash the exceptional increase in net migration has really provoked. We appear to simply have other priorities, and while we want immigration to be managed well, the numbers, high as they are, seem to concern most us less than ever. 

That’s why Starmer failed to land a blow when he accused Sunak of being the most “liberal” Prime Minister we’ve ever had on immigration based on numbers alone. It is a serious mistake to conflate a system that brings a lot of immigrants into the country with a “liberal” immigration system. In fact, while numbers have certainly increased, most people who come here have more restricted rights than ever, which has led directly to soaring rates of poverty and exploitation. The system is not working well for anyone, and that’s really where objections should lie.

Despite the debate on the right being dominated by an insistence on bringing numbers down, I don’t know anyone on the ‘liberal’ side of the question who sees numbers going up as the aim. What matters is how this country treats the people we do offer visas to, and how we manage and plan for the economic and social outcomes from the numbers of visas we give out. Relatively fewer migrants working alongside locals in a system that is flexible, provides for everyone’s needs, and protects everyones rights is not an illiberal aim, but driving all other policy behind the agenda to reduce the number of foreigners whatever the costs certainly is.


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When workers come to do essential jobs in our country, the public welcomes it. But all workers deserve the protections of well-enforced labour standards, a fair and level playing field in the job market, and basic rights like living with our families and the possibility to settle here after a few years. We need to overhaul the work visa system not because it brings in too many workers, but because it traps those workers with the employer who sponsors their visa, preventing them from leaving if conditions are poor to find work elsewhere.

Ultimately what the two leaders failed to grapple with that in a good immigration debate, the system, not the numbers would be the focus. But this debate format doesn’t lend itself to that conversation, because it has to start with planning for and investing in public services, staffed by locals and by newcomers, that serve all the population’s needs, rather than sowing division.

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