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Geopolitics & Security

UK General Election 2019: Immigration - the search for coherence

Briefing28th November 2019

Chapter 1

  • In the year ending June 2019 (the latest figures available), net migration stood at 212,000. Since 2016, EU immigration has fallen to its lowest level since 2013, while non-EU migration has risen.

  • While trust in the government’s handling of immigration remains low, there has been a more general softening of public attitudes towards immigration since 2011.

  • Having failed to deliver its target to reduce net migration below 100,000 in three successive elections, the Conservatives have quietly dropped it, replacing it with an aspiration to ensure ‘overall numbers come down’ and the introduction of a points-based system. However, there is little detail as to how the new system will work in practice.

  • Labour have adopted a more liberal stance, in particular, on illegal migration, asylum seekers and family-based migration, where they are pledging to dilute many of the controls that currently exist. However, the clarity of their position overall is clouded by the Party’s broader ambiguity on Brexit.

  • Of the three parties, the Lib Dems have the most balanced immigration policy package, combining pledges to strengthen meaningful control, economic opportunity and social integration.

Chapter 2


In the year ending June 2019 (the latest figures available), net migration to the UK was estimated by the ONS to be 210,000, with 609,000 people having moved to the UK and 397,000 people leaving. While net migration has remained broadly stable since 2016, this masks changes in the pattern of EU and non-EU migration. For example, EU immigration has fallen since 2016 and is at its lowest level since 2013 (mainly due to a fall in immigration for work). In particular, there are now more EU8 citizens (from Central and Eastern European countries) leaving the UK than arriving. On the other hand, non-EU migration has risen slightly since 2013, mainly driven by increases in migration for study.[_]

Figure 1

Net migration by citizenship, UK, year ending June 2009 to year ending March 2019

uk-general-election-2019-immigration-search-coherence - Net migration by citizenship, UK, year ending June 2009 to year ending March 2019

While anxiety about immigration has been a central feature of British politics for over a decade – playing a key role in the 2015 general election and 2016 EU referendum campaign - in recent years there appears to have been a significant softening of attitudes towards immigration. In 2011, 64 per cent of Britons told Ipsos Mori immigration had been bad for Britain, but by 2019 that figure had fallen to 26 per cent. Similarly, there has been an increase in people saying immigration has been good for Britain, rising from 19 per cent in 2011 to 48 per cent in 2019.[_]

However, growing positivity about migrants does not imply increasing confidence in the government’s handling of immigration. For example, just 15 per cent of respondents in an ICM poll felt that the government had managed immigration ‘competently and fairly’.[_]There is evidence that people think differently about immigrants as people and about immigration as an issue.[_] When they think of immigrants, they often see the way immigrants enhance their communities and how they work hard. But when people think of immigration in the round, they link it to government failure and growing insecurity. This would explain the apparent contradiction in attitudinal data, with the public growing increasingly distrustful of the government’s handling, while simultaneously more positive about its impacts.

It is widely accepted that a key source of the public’s frustration with the government’s handling of immigration has been ‘broken promises’ by politicians. In particular, the Conservatives’ signature immigration policy - a target to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 per year - has been repeatedly broken, with the rate standing at 226,000 in 2019. This has been compounded by a number of high profile policy failures, most notably the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, which culminated in the Windrush scandal (whereby long-standing British residents were faced with deportation because they were unable to prove their right to reside).

Meanwhile, one of the biggest drivers of public anxiety on immigration – rising levels of illegal migration - remains fundamentally unaddressed. A recent Pew study suggested there were between 800,000 and 1.2 million ‘unauthorised immigrants’ living in the UK in 2017 – a quarter of all unauthorised immigrants living in Europe.[_]The refusal by any of the political parties to countenance a system of identity verification makes it very difficult to see how illegal migration will be effectively tackled, whoever wins the election.

Chapter 3

2019 Manifestos: where the parties stand

Case Study



Control: Immigration overall will fall

Economic migration: Free movement to end, replaced by a ‘points based system’, easing restrictions on foreign students (post-study work)

Integration: Commitment to boost English language teaching and tackling prejudice, racism and discrimination


Case Study



Control: ‘review border controls’, repeal the 2014 Immigration Act

Economic migration: Free movement will be ‘subject to negotiations’ if Britain leaves the EU, regulate the labour market to stop undercutting of wages and conditions

Family: remove salary thresholds

Humanitarian: End indefinite detention


Case Study

Liberal Democrats

Liberal Democrats

Control: Entry and exit checks

Economic migration: Retain free movement, remove students from the numbers

Humanitarian: expand Syrian resettlement scheme, end indefinite detention

Integration: expand English language provision

Chapter 4

Framing the politics

In recent years, the Conservatives’ approach to immigration policy has been characterised by short-termism. In their desire to demonstrate they were meeting the public’s desire for greater control, the Conservatives have spent the last three elections committed to a pledge (to bring net migration below 100,000) that was neither deliverable, nor desirable. The pledge was based on the flawed notion that all types of immigration were the same - leaving the government in the absurd position of attempting to clamp down on foreign students and high skilled migrants, simply because they were the easiest category of migration to restrict. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have claimed that delivering Brexit (and ending free movement) will be the primary mechanism for meeting the pledge, even though migration from outside the EU has been higher than EU migration for decades.

During this election campaign, the net migration target appears to have been quietly dropped, which is to be welcomed, yet the Conservatives remain committed to the vague aspiration of ‘bringing overall numbers down’: an objective that appears incompatible with their stated policy of an ‘Australian-style points-based system’, which emphasises selectivity, rather than overall numbers. Indeed in all of the countries in which a points-based system has been implemented (including Australia), it has been used as a lever to increase, rather than reduce, immigration levels.

In recent years, Labour has (at least tonally) attempted to adopt a more liberal stance on immigration. However, the substance of their position has been clouded by the party’s broader ambiguity on Brexit. In particular, it is not clear whether Labour favours retaining free movement once Britain has departed from the EU and/ or whether (or how) Labour plans to reform the current system for non-EU economic migration. On integration, Labour has said nothing, reflecting a long-held reluctance by sections of the left to engage in what they deem to be a form of migrant-blaming. However, this is based on a misunderstanding of what integration means: that it is solely about migrants having to ‘fit in’. In fact, integration is a two-way street, whereby both newcomers and the host community share responsibility for establishing the foundations of a shared citizenship.

The Lib Dems’ position on Brexit allows them greater clarity on free movement (which, in the event that Article 50 was revoked, would obviously be retained). Like Labour, the Lib Dems are also committed to liberalising the asylum system, for example, by making it easier for asylum seekers to work if their claim is unresolved after six months, and ending the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. The Lib Dems appear to focus more attention on social integration than Labour, having committed to extending available English language lessons.

Geopolitics & Security

28th March 2018

Chapter 5

Analysis: the need for a balanced approach

As we have argued in previous publications, a principled and balanced approach to immigration policy would involve giving equal weight to three broad principles:

  • Meaningful control: over the last decade, citizens have lost confidence in how the government has managed immigration. An important objective should therefore be to ensure that politicians take steps to exercise meaningful control, keeping the pace and pattern of inflows manageable and tackling illegal migration, with proper accountability for how decisions are made.

  • Maximise economic benefits: too often immigration policy has been developed in isolation from broader economic and skills policy. But they are inextricably linked. An important objective should therefore be to ensure that the immigration system is aligned with a modern industrial strategy, plugging skills shortages in strategically important sectors of the economy. That means governments must be able to proactively attract the types of migrants that will most enhance economic productivity, rather than lumping all migration together into a single homogeneous bloc.

  • Social solidarity: in a world of rapid population change, governments need to ensure immigration policy is designed to support, rather than undermine, social integration. To do so they must provide greater clarity on the expectations placed on both new arrivals and host communities, and sufficiently clear pathways to citizenship.

While the Conservative manifesto represents a softer tone from that used in 2017, the substance of their position remains unbalanced, with the desire to reduce ‘numbers overall’ incompatible with other policy considerations. Little detail is provided as to how an ‘Australian-style points-based system’ will work in practice, though the pledge to ensure most migrants ‘have a job offer’ suggests it will be a less flexible version of the system than is the case in other countries (including Australia). The previous pledge to implement a £30,000 salary threshold does not appear in the manifesto, replaced by a vague aspiration to prioritise people with ‘good education and qualifications’. Similarly, there is a pledge to ‘treat EU and non-EU citizens equally’, without any acknowledgement that this is likely to be the subject of future negotiations regarding a new trade deal with the EU.

Labour’s position is unbalanced in a different way. There is a desire to be more welcoming to immigration than previous governments, but with little thought given to how they would achieve public consent and the public’s desire to ensure flows are kept manageable and that illegal migration is effectively tackled. For example, Labour has pledged to introduce an unqualified right of family reunion and drop salary thresholds – meaning family members would no longer need to demonstrate that they can support themselves financially before being allowed to enter. However, this risks weakening control (family routes have historically been used to get around other forms of immigration control) and undermining social integration (with family members unable to work and/ or participate in British society).

The Lib Dems’ position is arguably the most balanced of the three parties. They have set out policies on control (exit and entry checks), maximising economic benefits (retaining free movement and removing students from the migration figures) and solidarity (in favour of expanding English language provision).

Chapter 6


In recent years, immigration policy has been bedevilled by two distinctive failures. Firstly policymakers have not been open about the choices and trade-offs involved in reconciling often competing objectives. Politicians have over-promised and under-explained. Secondly, there has been a tendency to develop immigration policy in isolation from other policy areas, leading to a focus on short-termist, reactive, and often downright inhumane policy, rather than immigration being anchored in a wider set of economic and social ambitions.

The policy platforms on offer at this election reinforce that general trend. The Conservatives are continuing to prioritise ‘reducing immigration overall’ over all other considerations – repeating the mistakes of the last ten years. Labour’s position is muddled by its ambiguity on Brexit and will be unlikely to reassure voters that they have a plan to ensure meaningful control and/ or build public consent. Of the three parties, the Lib Dems’ position appears most balanced, with policies that combine a focus on control, economic opportunity and social integration.

Lead image: Getty


  1. 1.

    ONS, Migration Statistics Quarterly Report, November 2019

  2. 2.

    BBC, Crossing Divides, ‘Has the UK changed its mind on immigration?’

  3. 3.

    British Future, ‘National Conversation on Immigration’, 2018

  4. 4.

    Peter Kellner, ‘Why we like migrants, not immigration’, 2015,

  5. 5.

    Pew research centre, ‘Unauthorised immigrants in the United Kingdom’, Nov 2019



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