November 22, 2022 - 11:48am

Keir Starmer today vowed to the CBI that a Labour government would “help the British economy off its immigration dependency to start investing more in training workers who are already here”. It is, like his recent complaint that the NHS recruits too many foreign workers instead of training up British staff, an obvious ploy to reassure disenchanted Tory voters that Labour is worth a chance in power.

After all, a couple of years ago I suggested here that Starmer’s obvious road map to Number 10 involved outflanking the Conservatives from the Right. The notional pursuit by both parties of the average British voter, whose statist and redistributive economic views are coupled with a distaste for unchecked immigration and experimental identity politics, made this the obvious gambit.

But what was not obvious was that the Tories would squander any pretence of competence on the basic, bread-and-butter issues that rally both their core and wavering voters: economic stability, managed immigration and robust law and order. No more need be said about the Conservative Party’s management of the economy in recent weeks and, in terms of law and order, Starmer never ceases to remind voters aghast at the collapse of policing under the Tories of his solid record as Director of Public Prosecutions. But when it comes to migration, Labour is positioning itself in front of an open goal. 

While the Conservatives partly sold Brexit as a means to bring immigration levels back down from the highs initiated by New Labour’s more or less open door policy, their record in government has been jarringly different. Under Johnson, immigration reached its highest level ever, with 1.1 million visas issued last year: not far off the 1.3 million migrant and refugee arrivals to Germany in 2015, then seen as a Europe-wide political crisis, and one which, ironically, played a famously notable role in the Brexit debate. 

But even these record levels of inward migration, dwarfing the waves of immigration which transformed American society between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were not enough for the Conservative Party. Truss’s signature policy platform, apart from her disastrous budget experiment, was a trade deal with India which amounted, in her own Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s words, to an “open borders” agreement with the country’s 1.4 billion people.

After all this, the Conservative Party can no longer credibly position itself as the party of controlled inward migration: instead, it has pursued a doom loop of lax border enforcement, causing further pressure on housing and public services, while blocking the housebuilding and investment in infrastructure that would ease some of the strain. Something has to give, and that something is surely giving Labour the chance to pursue a different policy. 

The howls of outrage Starmer’s interventions on immigration have attracted from Left-liberals who will, in any case, still vote Labour next election are perhaps part of the point: like Blair quelling the unions, Starmer needs to show voters he can face down the open borders activists within Labour’s ranks. Labour may not bring immigration numbers down but, under constant attack from a Conservative court press who ran cover for Johnson’s failures, they are unlikely to actively seek to increase numbers like our two last Tory leaders did.

Whether or not he will succeed in power, or whether he intends any meaningful change, is perhaps beside the point: the Conservatives had years to address the problem, and blew it in spectacular fashion. When even Nigel Farage can pop up asserting that “Labour are now to the Right of the Tories on immigration”, the Conservative reputation on border controls, like so much else, is lost to history.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.