April 21, 2024 - 8:00am

It is hard to remember how little of a role immigration played in the 2019 election. The Conservative manifesto promised nothing more than an Australian-style points system and a vague promise that “overall numbers will come down”, particularly at the lower skill end. Labour’s manifesto dedicated two out of 107 pages to the subject, much of it about redress for victims of the Windrush scandal.

Five years on, the scene has changed somewhat. All aspects of migration, legal and illegal, have acquired immense political salience once again. Between fits of despair, both No. 10 and Conservative MPs muse to journalists about the possibility of a small-boats election, or of an ECHR election (to leave to stop the small boats) or of an immigration election. Yet Rishi Sunak, so decisive when it comes to things such as maths in schools and cancelling train lines, has dithered so long that he will be lucky if he gets to contest the January 2025 election (an increasingly likely prospect) as party leader.

The trouble for the Conservatives, of course, is that it is hard to fight an election on immigration when they only have themselves to blame for the problem. They promised lower numbers and more high-skilled migrants; they ended up with higher numbers and more low-skilled migrants. They promised to stop the small boats, but numbers only drop when there is a strong gale in the English Channel. They promised Rwanda as the panacea for those who arrive on dinghies, but have only managed to boost Rwanda’s GDP.

Though the Conservatives are doomed whatever they do, the hope is surely that, by talking tough about immigration and floating plans they will never have the chance to implement, this will stem the bleeding to Reform and perhaps trap Labour. But the party can never outflank Reform on migration, and all Labour has to do is make vague noises about reducing numbers and not screwing it up like the Tories did to defuse the issue.

But neither party will address, at least not explicitly, what is at the core of Britain’s immigration predicament. Many on the Right imagine that the Tories have deliberately flunked their immigration policy because they did not try hard enough to lower the numbers, or because they were not mentally committed to the task. In other words, it is the “wish it harder and it will come to fruition” theory of governance.

But what really drives Britain’s record immigration numbers is the economy, stupid — or rather how the British economy has been structured, often through the Government’s own incentives and policies. Take foreign students, for instance. Successive governments have frozen the tuition fee for home students and at the same time pushed universities to act like businesses.

The result is that British universities, keen to balance their books, have let in thousands of foreign students, sometimes lowering standards in doing so. One may bemoan the outcome, but it is not clear that it was the result of deliberate political malpractice — after all, not hiking tuition fees and pushing universities to be more commercially-minded are both perfectly reasonable policies, taken in isolation.

The same is true for migration and the NHS, whose reliance on foreign workers is often hailed as a positive immigration story. But the NHS’s dependence on foreign staff is the result of the UK’s failure to train enough doctors and nurses, then paying those it trains so badly that they jet off to Australia instead. Again, defensible in theory (not to mention making balancing the books easier, at least in the short term) but problematic in the long run.

None of these examples fits on an election poster, much less a tweet. If the next general election is indeed to be fought, as the Tories hope, on immigration, they will not feature to any extent. But if Keir Starmer is serious about governing, he will have to consider what he will do about them.

Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.