How much will immigration dominate the snap election?

Rosie Carter - 08 05 17

Internationally, the politicisation of immigration has been central to the rise of the populist right, as well as to the election of Donald Trump – and most recently in propelling the popularity of Marine Le Pen.

Despite the fact that immigration is often the trope for wider economic concerns, it has caused all sides of the political spectrum to frontline migration in their political messaging. It dominated the 2015 election and the EU referendum – but how much is immigration likely to dominate next month’s snap general election?

Immigration policies were central to both sides in the EU referendum campaign, and are proving a critical factor in Brexit negotiations. We could well see a similarly divided immigration debate emerge this time, too. But so far, as different sides have begun to line up their campaigns against ‘Soft Brexit’ Vs ‘Hard Brexit’ scenarios, parties have been relatively quiet on immigration and have been unwilling to put forward any concrete policies.

Immigration vs Economy?

Theresa May has claimed that she will prioritise controls on immigration over the economy, although there is little clarity over how this might be achieved. She has been criticised by Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron for “playing the immigration card” after stating her ‘personal commitment’ to the much contested net migration target.

And while it was confirmed today that this target will remain in the 2017 manifesto, other members of her party have hinted at different ideas, saying immigration is “not about the numbers” and there has been much discussion about keeping international students in the figure. At the same time, polling shows that the Conservatives remain the “most trusted voice” on the topic.

Conversely, Labour has said that the economy will take precedence over immigration reforms, but there is confusion over what this actually means. The party’s leadership has reached an agreement that free movement rules will have to end, but it is unclear what they will propose in its place.

The Liberal Democrats have come out strongly in support of EU migrants, accusing the government of peddling “poisonous propaganda” against migrants – but beyond dropping the net migration target they do not seem to have a confident antidote to these negative discourses to put forward.

On the other side, and currently on the ropes, UKIP is unsurprisingly holding immigration as one of its key issues to stop Brexit “backsliding”, but is yet to clarify any tangible intentions.

Politicisation of immigration

The politicisation of immigration has held politicians in an awkward position, attempting to please both sceptic voters and ensure the country’s labour needs and international humanitarian obligations are met. Hardline promises on immigration are doomed to be broken: often both legally impossible and economically impractical to uphold.

Trump’s failed ‘Muslim ban’ offers an extreme example, but in the UK the net migration target has never been reached and existing visa systems have had to be altered to cater for a lack of nurses, contra to minimum income regulations.

Given the increasing lack of trust in politicians to handle immigration, parties may well be treading carefully to keep their promises and their reputations as unscathed as possible. Further, it might not be something they need to talk about in the time-pressured run up to 8 June. Britain leaving the EU and the key topic of ‘healthcare’ have rapidly overshadowed immigration as issues of public concern, now on par with worries about the economy.

But despite the short time frame, this election will be decisive for the future of the country. The rights of migrants, including the rights of three million EU citizens to stay in the UK, are up for grabs, as are free movement rules, and the survival of many key sectors, from health and social care to hospitality.

The Conservative proposal for ‘barista visas’ indicates that there are concerns about the effects of constrained immigration rules on business as we leave the European Union. As party manifestos emerge we are unlikely to get a full view of what politicians intentions are, however high the stakes.


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