An immigration election? Examining the manifestos reveals stark disagreements and lack of detail

This has been declared the “immigration election” by Nigel Farage, leader of the Reform Party. A quarter of the public does see it that way, citing immigration as one of their top three issues. Broad majorities would call this the “cost of living election” or “NHS election” first.

Yet all parties need to set out their agenda in manifestos that illuminate both what they do want to say about immigration — and also, often, which policy issues they would prefer to avoid for now.

The Conservatives have two major political problems with making manifesto pledges on immigration. One is that they had promised to reduce immigration in four manifestos without achieving it. The pledge to reduce numbers last time was followed by its tripling by 2022. That was partly due to unexpected global events in Hong Kong, Ukraine and Afghanistan; partly by the policy design of a more liberal post-Brexit system; and some unintended consequences, such as the spike in dependent visas for study and social care.

The even bigger headache is that “stop the boats” was the flagship Rishi Sunak pledge that everybody remembers — because it has not happened.

So public trust on this issue of immigration has rarely been lower. On numbers, the Conservatives pledge to lower numbers again. This time, despite public scepticism, it would be likely to happen if the party was re-elected.

The Conservative manifesto now offers a mechanism to deliver that promise: an annual cap on the overall numbers. The government would not set the number, but would ask the Migration Advisory Committee to do so. One hitch is that before the manifesto commitment was made, the MAC’s 2023 annual report set out why setting the desired level is the role of government, rather than the MAC. Picking an overall number, it says, is a much less effective approach to reducing migration than making decisions about specific policies and visa routes.

Beyond the commitment to send planes to Rwanda, the Conservatives make a set of contradictory proposals on asylum: to clear the asylum backlog; to reduce the cost of hotel accommodation; and to implement the Illegal Migration Act (which would permanently refuse admission to the UK asylum system to those in the backlog).

Squaring the circle depends on suggesting the Rwanda scheme — funded to take up to 500 people in year one at a cost of £85 million — could be expanded to take 100,000 people. In the parallel universe where this was possible, IPPR calculates the cost at £24 billion. The government does not want to acknowledge the clear reality that 95% of these people would be put in the asylum system.

Labour offers the least detail on immigration. It is in favour of the contribution of immigration but says that net migration will be lower. When the current level is net 680,000, this will almost certainly be true within 12 months. Labour says it will organise more joined-up thinking about future skills and migration policy, but takes no particular position on any visa route, from social care to the graduate visa.

If Labour does not believe in a net migration target then it might use the breathing space of lower numbers to set out its broader policy objectives and aims, perhaps with an annual Immigration plan presented to Parliament, though the manifesto does not propose this.

It is on asylum where Labour clearly differentiates itself from the government’s position: scrapping the Rwanda scheme as ineffective and putting the resources into new border policing. It is also committed to processing the backlog of existing asylum claims to reduce accommodation costs.

Beyond its hope to tackle smuggling gangs, Labour’s manifesto is silent on its ambitions to negotiate new arrangements, whether a replacement for the previous Dublin agreement to promote family reunion, or a broader ‘routes and returns’ deal with France, which might help facilitate removals of those whose asylum claims are refused.

The most striking thing about the Labour manifesto is how many issues it chooses to leave out. The party dropped its previous pledge to allow asylum seekers to work at six months. Nor does it have anything to say about integration and citizenship, for example.

The contrast can be seen in how the Liberal Democrats have a considerably more detailed agenda than Labour, striking a distinctly more liberal stance. The party believes most asylum decisions can be made in 3 months and that there should be the right to work if it takes longer. Ed Davy’s party would seek to negotiate the youth mobility deal proposed by the EU Commission, as one staging post to negotiate access to the single market and return to free movement.

The SNP and Green Party are similarly bold in their pro-migration language and proposals. New British Social Attitudes data published this week finds a broad majority for some of these liberal proposals, making these approaches as rational for the smaller centre-left parties as the Reform agenda is for Nigel Farage. Labour is more anxious about the socially conservative flank of an electoral coalition where three-quarters of the Labour vote would welcome bolder liberal policies.

Reform are yet to publish their formal manifesto but have had a working draft with their six-point plan, speaking primarily to that restrictionist quarter of the public. Net migration would, they say, be reduced to zero. There would also be a national insurance premium on employing foreign nationals.

The party opposes the Rwanda scheme as unlikely to work. Nigel Farage is now ditching offshore processing in a British Overseas Territory as expensive and difficult. The party has a simple solution: just take the boats back to France, whether the French like it or not. There is little chance of the UK navy operating outside international law in this way.

This exemplifies the asymmetry in the voice and agenda of smaller parties, compared with those that might have the responsibility to govern. Whichever party is elected may, however, need find early in the new parliament that they need more to say than can be found in their manifesto. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website. Subscribe to our daily newsletter for all the latest election news and analysis.