The immigration debate: Labour versus Leave in the battle to win public trust

The Labour Party struggled to win over its supporters in the EU Referendum because of the issues that came to dominate the debates. The choice between Remain or Leave was really a contest between economics and immigration.

Both issues are challenging for Labour. Since the global financial crisis came to Britain in 2007, Labour’s credibility for economic policy was under threat as rival political parties placed blame for the crisis at their feet as the governing party. If the Referendum campaign had focused mostly on whether exiting the EU would amount to jumping off an economic cliff into a certain, and avoidable, recession – this was an argument they could make and find support. But that’s not how things turned out.

Leave supporters addressed public anxieties about immigration and said that only by leaving the EU could Britain control its borders. This message resonated with voters who blamed the EU’s free movement for record net migration putting a greater burden on already stretched public services.

Labour might have improved public confidence about their economic policies over the last decade, but they have performed increasingly less well on immigration.

The party’s problems with immigration are partly a product of core constituency groups within Labour’s broad political tent. Many supporters are well educated, aspirational and view globalisation more as an opportunity. But many other supporters – primarily, but not exclusively, in Labour’s northern heartlands – are skilled workers who have seen their communities decline and see globalisation as more a threat. A general split in England and Wales between urban areas for Remain and rural communities for Leave is an indication of this.

But the real divide was not demographic, but more political. Leave won in large part due to public anxieties about immigration levels. ‘Leavers’ responded favourably to the message of taking back control from the EU because it was believed that Leave would mean stricter border controls leading to less immigration.

The simple Leave campaign claim that leaving the EU will mean improving borders is doubtful. Despite repeated assertions that EU free movement is ‘uncontrolled’, it is in fact subject to a number of restrictions like any other freedom. EU citizens can be denied entry to another member state if deemed a security threat and deported after six months – not unlike a non-EU tourist – should they fail to find work or have a realistic prospect for employment.

The Leave campaign also claimed they would introduce an Australian-styled points-based immigration system, but without noticing two key facts. First, Australia’s system was designed to increase immigration – which it did. Secondly, the UK launched a points-based immigration system over a decade ago. The system is more something borrowed – to be extended to cover EU as well as non-EU citizens – than something new.

But these facts made little difference. Immigration has troubled successive governments since at least Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. Each has rolled out ever more immigration laws and rules – changing now almost daily – that few border agents can keep up with the current policies let alone the public. As net migration figures reached record highs, the public became increasingly disappointed with growing support for stronger measures.

The Labour Party has had real difficulties winning back public confidence, in part, because they were blamed for early migration growth as the EU expanded. While net migration figures have grown the most during the current government’s term in office, it has been Labour that has faced repeated criticism for opening the door that others have struggled to shut.

Much of the criticisms that Labour faces has come from northern communities like the North East. While Labour holds nearly every constituency seat from Blyth Valley to Hartlepool, voters strongly supported Leave and immigration was the leading issue.

A consequence is that Labour was at a disadvantage when trying to win over new voters the more the debate centred on which side commanded greater public confidence on immigration. It did not help that Labour generally avoided discussion about immigration for much of the campaign. Beyond criticising Leave’s position, Labour’s Remain supporters like Tom Watson did not float new policy ideas like restricting EU free movement as part of a renegotiated ‘Remain’ until days before the vote.

Labour’s efforts are made more difficult by the fact that the areas most for Leave and stricter immigration controls have the lowest numbers of foreign-born migrants in the country – there are more migrants in the Shetland Islands than there are in Redcar and Cleveland. Providing greater confidence that migration is controlled is crucial for Labour to rebuild public trust. The party’s concern for the future is that much of their heartlands chose Leave – rejecting Labour’s campaign and perceived weakness on immigration.

The sad irony is that the foundations of the current immigration system supported by all parties were built by Blair’s Labour government – from a points-based system, stricter English language requirements, tougher barriers to claiming asylum and policies like the Migration Impacts Fund that provided support to local communities to relief pressures on public services due to migration.

Despite having achieved so much, Labour has been rewarded very little for it.

Nevertheless, the problems that immigration caused Labour during the EU Referendum are unlikely to go away unless there is some substantial new offering to the public. The issue is whether such an offer can be made that is agreeable to both their more Eurosceptic supporters as well as their more urban and aspirational voters.