The immigration mess is a nightmare for both the Tories and Labour

We know what happens when the political class plays down issues which matter to voters. After two decades of ignoring public concerns about globalisation and immigration, the UK got Brexit. This week, Nigel Farage’s return to frontline politics puts pressure on the Conservatives — but on a future Labour government too. For Farage will weaponise the fact that the UK is seeing unprecedented levels of immigration for which there is no democratic consent. 

Net migration was 764,000 in 2022 and 685,000 in 2023 — a trebling since the last election, as shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has pointed out. The Office for National Statistics has had to bring its estimate for when the population will hit 70mn forward by a decade: from 2037 to 2026.

A population jump on this scale demands some big decisions on infrastructure and public services: building large numbers of new homes, expanding hospitals, roads and rail. Yet we have seen no coherent strategy, from a government which has obsessed over a relatively small number of asylum-seekers crossing the Channel.

Failure to acknowledge the scale of legal migration, or to plan for it, has been a running sore for 20 years. Had Tony Blair’s government created infrastructure for the eastern Europeans who came to the UK after 2004, rather than parroting the Home Office’s catastrophic underestimates, we might never have seen the resentment which erupted in Brexit. 

Blair’s decision to open up early to the accession countries brought many highly skilled, hardworking people to Britain. The loss of those who have since returned to countries like Poland is felt every day in the building trade, in engineering, hospitality and the NHS. They were a shining example of how migrants can grow the economy. 

Since the pandemic, the number of EU arrivals has fallen but has been more than offset by people from the rest of the world. Bringing in keen workers from outside could be an answer to Britain’s unconscionably high level of economic inactivity — more than 9mn people neither in work nor looking for a job. But the latest provisional figures from the ONS show that only a quarter of non-EU nationals who arrived in 2023 came explicitly to work.

Expanding public services to support a larger population works fine when enough new arrivals are net fiscal contributors. Those on the Skilled Worker route are more likely to be in that category than others. But, astonishingly, there is a lack of reliable data on whether dependants are even in work. This is a particular issue for international students and migrant workers in health and care, two of the main drivers of the recent increase.

One concern is that the graduate visa, which gives postgraduate students a right to work without having to meet the skilled worker criteria, is attracting low-wage migrants rather than global talent. The growth in student numbers has been fastest in less selective and lower-cost universities and their biggest sector of employment is administrative and support services, followed by health and care: not areas which generally require an advanced degree. 

Another worry is that care worker visas, created to stem the gaping holes in domestic social care, have led to a dramatic increase in dependants, far more than among skilled workers.

You might say, what’s the problem? We need migrants to work in the NHS, which would otherwise collapse. Unless we provide proper wages and working conditions, we will be lucky to get anyone to work in social care. Higher education is a prime British export, and universities are dependent on foreign students who are already making fewer applications as new restrictions bite. Plus, in an ageing country with a falling birth rate, the economy needs youthful energy from outside. 

The first “but” is that this is not what the electorate was promised. In the 2010s, the government had an explicit target of net migration in the tens of thousands, which it never achieved. In 2019, Boris Johnson promised to lure “the best and brightest” and build post-Brexit Britain as a high-wage, high-skill economy. The reality is very different. 

The second is a lack of coherence, for businesses, residents and new arrivals. When you tinker with visas, you are playing with people’s lives. The Tories have lurched from one policy to another. Evidence of abuse of some workers on care visas is horrific.

With polls consistently showing that migration is one of the top three voter concerns, the next government has some difficult decisions to make. Conservatives will not be forgiven for having done the opposite of what they promised. If they lose, the anger and anxiety will transfer to the new government. People want to know if their rents will keep rising, as the population expands. Others ask who will look after the old. Still more will wonder, quietly, what pace of immigration is compatible with maintaining the UK’s relatively good record on social cohesion. 

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, has promised to reduce net migration if he becomes prime minister but that won’t be hard: the numbers are already trending down a bit and there is unlikely to be a repeat of the intake from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan. The bigger question is who should come, and at what pace. Immigration policy is a mess which shouldn’t be hijacked by left or right — but the longer the mess continues, the more likely it is that something ugly will emerge.

This article has been amended to remove out of date information on the rate of economic inactivity among those not born in the EU or UK

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