Home Estate Planning Instead of avoiding the issue, Labour could use immigration to its advantage

Instead of avoiding the issue, Labour could use immigration to its advantage

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Immigration has divided the Tory party, but with nine out of ten constituencies wanting lower immigration, Labour will not be able to escape the issue either, writes Jenevieve Treadwell

Immigration is tricky for the Labour Party. Unlike the Conservatives’ voter base, which is overwhelmingly sceptical of immigration, Labour’s electoral coalition is split between their 2019 supporters – only 20 per cent of whom think it’s a top issue – and their new converts – 40 per cent of whom think it’s one of the top issues facing the country, according to centre-right think tank Onward’s research.

But there is a path forward for Labour. Our new polling shows that while it’s not a top issue for their most progressive supporters, many are still concerned that the overall level of immigration is too high. Even a typical 30-something graduate living in London thinks that immigration levels should go down rather than up.

This fits closely with what the rest of Britain thinks, with nine out of 10 constituencies wanting lower levels of immigration. If Keir Starmer wants to secure his majority, Labour must acknowledge that for most of the country, the current level of immigration is too high.

For the Conservative Party, the politics are simple: its voters are consistently negative about the impacts of immigration, socially and economically. Some 69 per cent of Conservative voters believe that it has undermined communities and 79 per cent believe that immigrants receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes.

Labour’s coalition is more divided. Half of their 2019 base, while still sceptical of the cultural impacts of immigration, believes that immigration has enriched the cultural and social life of our communities. Only a third of Tory-to-Labour switchers share this view.

This dividing line is tricky for Labour. Focusing too much on the cultural impacts of immigration risks alienating one of these two groups. Taking a more liberal stance may satisfy their base, but it could turn off their new voters and leave them vulnerable to attacks from the Conservative Party. Being more hawkish on culture may shore up support from new voters but may see some of their base peel off to other left-wing parties.

The best answer for Labour may be to shift the debate about immigration away from culture and towards the economy and workers’ rights. Why? Because it’s the one thing that unites their coalition, and may even attract more new voters.

Regardless of age, education or political persuasion, people believe immigrants receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes. Around two-thirds of both 2019 Labour voters and Tory-to-Labour switchers hold this view. We found the same pattern when we asked voters about public services like the NHS. A clear majority of Labour’s 2019 base and their once-Tory joiners believe it costs public services like the NHS.

And for new and old Labour voters, their frustration is not directed at immigrants but at the dysfunctional immigration system more broadly. In a three-way choice between paying migrants less than British workers, the same as British workers, or charging businesses a tax for hiring overseas workers, 69 per cent of Labour voters chose equality. Only eight per cent chose to undercut British workers by hiring immigrants for lower wages. Labour already seems to be making some of the right noises. They have pledged to scrap the rule which allows firms to pay foreign workers 80 per cent of the current UK rate if their occupation is on the shortage list.

This view is shared across the political spectrum: just over half of Conservative voters also oppose undercutting British workers. Far from alienating their base, the worst Labour could do is win over more Conservative voters.

By focusing on workers’ rights and setting aside debates on culture, Labour could shift the immigration debate into more comfortable territory.

With a policy offering that protects British workers and prevents foreign workers from being exploited, Labour may be able to prove that they understand the concerns of their new voters while speaking the language of their progressive base.

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