There is no difference between the parties now. I know that sounds like the hyperbole of a political try-hard, but I think it’s true. In the early 2000s Labour solved the problem of asylum seekers and it took everyone a long time to realise. At some point in the last few years the problem of European migration was solved and people still haven’t noticed. The rhetoric will vary but the UK’s immigration policies for the next generation are set. Unless the UK leaves Europe we know what immigration policy is going to look like.
In the early late 1990s, southeastern Europe tore itself apart and refugees started to appear in the UK. Labour passed lots of laws that stripped refugees of their rights. It worked, but Labour get little praise for their achievement.The numbers of asylum seekers in the UK sank from 84,130 in 2003 to under 20,000 from 2009 onwards. The asylum seeker question is settled. They should be prevented from arriving, but if they make it here we don’t let them work, give them the worst housing and £5.23 a day each for food, sanitation and clothing.
Despite the number of refugees staying high globally, Labour successfully helped the UK dodge its internationally responsibilities towards the world’s refugees. Labour don’t get any thanks from the Tories or Lib Dems but everyone is a Blairite now when it comes to asylum policy. There are no suggestions we weaken sanctions or accept more refugees, the matter is dead. All eyes are on the politics of European migration.
In 2004 the UK, Ireland and Sweden opened their borders to the A8 ex-communist states, the rest of Europe waited to see what happened. We received not 10,000s of migrants as predicted, but 100,000s. Just as the asylum problem was “solved” a new front opened. Europe, specifically poor Eastern Europe, is the political problem and as John Rentoul points out, there’s very little between the main parties on migration. At Question Time on Thursday Rachel Reeves and Michael Heseltine both banally agreed it had been a mistake to let in the Poles.
Just as the asylum problem was solved and nobody noticed so has the problem of European migration. If in 2017 we vote to leave the European Union then we will see a drop in migration. Much more likely though is us staying in Europe and accession states having their free movement restricted. How this policy will manifest is difficult to predict but each party will follow a similar line. Migration will stay in the low 100,000s because the UK, for all its faults, is much better than most other places and we won’t leave the EU. Asylum Refugees will remain betrayed and politically unimportant and non-EU migrants will remain able to move here for family reasons or if they’re rich, well educated and have a corporate sponsor.
People will keep moaning about immigration, but “Europe and immigration” now means “what do we do with Ukraine and Turkey.” Geopolitically Europe wants them in their sphere of influence but don’t want to deal with over 100 million new European citizens. On immigration the parties are agreed. On geopolitics too they want Turkey and Ukraine to be in the European sphere of influence. Managing this will be a huge challenge but its a very different immigration debate to the one we’ve been having for a decade and a half. That debate is over but I’m not sure anybody has noticed.