Keir Starmer is currently expected to win the Labour leadership contest.

Can Starmer incorporate immigration controls into a ‘progressive’ vision for Britain?

For many, the pictures of small boats coming in increasing numbers across the Channel offer a snapshot of British inefficacy and decline. According to a recent YouGov survey, immigration and asylum have risen up voters’ priorities to become the third most important issue facing the country. 

The timing of Sunak’s announcement on new immigration controls on Tuesday was hence entirely deliberate. 

There is also an obvious political angle here. The fever-pitch rhetoric of Reform UK (formerly Farage’s Brexit party) is increasingly chiming with the Conservative-voting conscience — and even Labour is gaining public trust on the issue.

Over recent weeks, Sir Keir Starmer has amped up the rhetoric on both legal and illegal immigration. He has talked tough on the issue at the CBI’s conference in November and at his own party’s gathering in September. But Sunak has sensed an underlying fragility.

Immigration has the potential to be an uncomfortable topic for Starmer. It has been a reliable vote winner for the Conservatives for decades and, for some in his party, the mere mention of support for “controls on immigration” is viewed as an attempt to outdo the Conservatives on the political right.

The issue for Labour is that any attempt to look “tough” on immigration inevitably opens up a debate about party identity and ideological direction — already a very sensitive subject under Starmer. So with party activists questioning the very framing of a “migrant crisis”, this begs the question: can the Labour leader embrace immigration controls in a way that is consistent with Labour’s core values of fairness, equality and social justice?

On the surface at least, this looks very difficult indeed. 

Channelling competency

Consecutive Labour leaders have walked a fine line on immigration. The tendency to decorate proposals with vague sentiments about “compassion” and “dignity” has at every turn proved compelling; the party’s positioning decided by a familiar tug-of-war between ideological instinct and tricky electioneering. 

The traditional attacks on Conservative divisiveness and inhumanity on immigration have certainly featured in Starmer’s approach to the issue. Addressing the commons on Tuesday, the Labour leader talked of refugees who want to “rebuild their lives” and of the “unethical plan to deport people to Rwanda”.

Likewise, following Suella Braverman’s statement on the tragic events in the channel on Wednesday, the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper pressed the need for “safe legal routes” to be established for asylum seekers. 

But the Labour conscience is not what it once was. And Starmer’s discursive approach to immigration makes interesting comparison with that of Stephen Flynn, Westminster’s new nationalist-in-chief. Speaking on Tuesday, Flynn insisted: “Nobody is illegal. There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker”.

Unlike the philosophic Flynn, Starmer reserved his bitterest remonstrations not for moral problems but for the practicalities of the government’s response. According to the Labour leader, the government’s key problems were “processing”, the “functioning” of the home office and “wasted” money.

The political framing of a “migrant crisis” was not the problem — it was the government’s inability to address it. As with so much else, Starmer’s approach to the immigration issue is to project “competence” and foreground Conservative failure. 

Crossing the threshold   

Before Sunak had a “five-point” plan to tackle channel crossings, Starmer penned his own. In fact, the former lawyer could make a persuasive case against the government on the grounds of policy plagiarism. Back in July, Starmer promised to:

  • Set up a bespoke new National Crime Agency cell to crack down on smuggling gangs;
  • Fast-track asylum decisions of those which appear on the home office’s ‘safe’ list;
  • Reform settlement schemes;
  • Replace the “Dublin Agreement” to include safe returns and family reunion; and
  • Work internationally to address why people flee their homes.

On Tuesday, Sunak duly announced he would fast-track asylum decisions for those coming from countries which appear on the Home Office’s ‘safe’ list, Albania being the focus; he would also set up a new unified and permanent small boats operational command, mirroring Labour’s commitment to a “National Crime Agency”.

Of course, there is one important distinction in Starmer and Sunak’s stance on channel crossings: that is the Rwanda policy, introduced by Priti Patel and stalled by the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR). 

When Patel introduced the policy, Cooper attacked the government over “unworkable, unethical” proposals that are “extortionate in their cost to the British taxpayer”. The Rwanda scheme, allowed Labour to fuse their attacks: on the one hand, you have the “inhumanity” of the scheme (it has been deemed unlawful by the ECHR) and on the other, the government’s “incompetency” (the scheme, and any Rwanda-bound planes, are yet to get off the ground).

On Tuesday, Sunak recommitted his party to the Rwanda scheme and it was on this topic that Starmer’s response was most effective. He said: “Money is being wasted on the unworkable, unethical plan to deport people to Rwanda: £140 million has been wasted already, with not a single deportation. … it does not even work as a deterrent”.

Opposition MPs were given a further opportunity to criticise the Rwanda scheme on Wednesday as a result of Jonathan Gullis’s ten-minute rule bill. Gullis is a former minister and an outspoken Boris-backer; his bill would have seen the government “proceed with removals” to Rwanda “regardless” of the ECHR’s objections.

While Labour did not offer a response (the SNP’s Alison Thewliss did that), it gave a sense of the Conservative’s fracturing unity on the immigration issue. It was backed by 69 Conservative MPs, including Patel, but notably not by the government which is still committed in principle to the ECHR. 

Additionally, given that Gullis’s bill was introduced on a day when 4 people died crossing the channel, MPs were given an opportunity to highlight both substantive and moral problems with the Conservative party’s approach.  

Cracking down “compassionately”…

Starmer’s vision for Labour and the country might generally be summed up as “progressive patriotism”.

He has talked up his pride in Britain using his favourite “son of a toolmaker” anecdote, while simultaneously bashing the government for abusing Britain’s best interests. Then there is Starmer’s image for competency and reliable managerialism. Against three Conservative prime ministers in a matter of months, it has proved a winning approach.

Starmer wants to apply this same fruitful formula to the immigration issue. He will at once highlight the “ethical” problems of the Rwanda scheme, while saving the bulk of his criticisms for the practicalities around government delivery. It won’t have crowds chanting “Oh Keir Starmer” (as The Guardian would have it) but amid a growing feeling that Britain is broken, Starmer’s more managerial, less showy presence appears well-positioned to feed off government failure. 

It will be interesting to see whether the Labour leader’s strategy on immigration evolves as he digests the details of Sunak’s approach. Indeed, how will Labour approach the revival of the so-called “hostile environment”, scrapped by Theresa May but embraced by Sunak? Will the Labour leader agree that the threshold to be considered a modern slave needs to be raised “significantly”? Ultimately, is it possible to crack down on immigration “compassionately”?

Starmer’s approach to the specifics of Sunak’s immigration proposals will outline just how “progressive” his “progressive Britain” will be.