Immigration and Labour’s Identity Crisis

by Erica Consterdine

Labour’s immigration policy is a reflection of the Party's identity crisis and has blinded it to values of tolerance and openness.

First published: 05 September, 2014 | Category: Migration, Politics

With the Coalition government adopting arguably the most restrictive immigration policy to date,  UKIP generating a so-called “earthquake” at the 2014 European elections, and public preferences pointing towards further limits on immigration, some may argue that the Labour Party has little option electorally but to adopt a tough rhetoric on immigration. Elections tend to produce a ratcheting effect in immigration politics, where ‘increased salience leads to increased attention which, in turn, increases the number of government statements emphasising the negativity of migratory movements’[1]. So perhaps Labour’s stance is understandable and simply a reflection of a ratcheting cycle in which all the parties are entangled. After all it has been argued that in no Western European country can politicians or parties gain votes by favouring new immigration’[2] and Labour knows this better than anyone. New Labour’s expansive immigration policy, otherwise known as the managed migration strategy – which saw two and half million foreign-born workers added to the population – was certainly not a vote winner. Indeed, some argue this policy contributed to their electoral defeat in 2010. If party success is simply the art of statecraft and vote maximization, then adopting a restrictive policy to match their rivals makes sense.  

But political parties are, or should be, more than just vote maximizers. The essence of party success is the achievement of ‘satisfactory trade off between ideological introversion and electoral extroversion, between principles and power’[3]. But the Party is in a difficult position. Party leader Ed Miliband’s ‘background and instincts are those of a metropolitan liberal’ and the Party’s values are founded on notions of equality, tolerance and openness, all of which lend to a progressive immigration policy. Yet Labour is conscious that they must disassociate themselves with their previous record. And if they are to win on an issue which the Tories historically ‘own’[4], the pressures to be tough are abounding. Miliband knows this dilemma well, declaring the two dangers of the immigration debate to be either to wish away public concerns or to suggest that Labour could close Britain off from the world; a  politically mixed message which Miliband acknowledges to be  ‘an incredibly hard thing to achieve.  

Currently it is unclear what Labour’s immigration policy might look like if the Party did win office in 2015. Political rhetoric implies a tougher approach, but the policy is still ambiguous to say the least. This ambivalence essentially stems from the Party’s somewhat contradictory tenets of cosmopolitan liberalism and socialist protectionism, expressed in the division between the liberal elite who constitute the Party and their core working class constituents. Historically, as the party have ideologically re-orientated from “old protectionist Labour to “new” neoliberal Labour, so their immigration policy has shifted. Labour’s immigration policy has always reflected the Party’s ideological position, in particular their interpretation of political economy. Yet the Party is undergoing a process of introspection over their identity now, and immigration policy brings this identity crisis to the fore like no other issue. Until the Party decide who they are, their immigration policy will remain somewhat unclear, but whichever path it takes, whether they adopt an austerity-lite programme akin to the Coalition’s or set out a more radical alternative, a progressive immigration policy will always be congruous with the Party’s key values of tolerance and equality. The quest to take office, and the ratcheting effect of immigration politics should not blind Labour to its ideological roots. It should not succumb to populist pressures but regain its voice as the party of equality.

Old Labour and the wilderness years: 1945-1997

Commentators often talk of “old Labour” with a hint of nostalgia, longing for the ideas of socialism to imprint on the Labour Party again. The so-called “loony left”, certainly in the wilderness years, was renowned for their economic protectionism, arguing for state intervention and clinging to the Keynesian ideals which underpinned the post-war consensus.

Labour’s immigration policy throughout the post-war period was ultimately founded on the same protectionist platform. The affiliated unions were for a long time less than enthusiastic at the prospect of mass immigration which, they argued, would suppress wages, cause job displacement amongst the native workforce and ‘undermine the trade unions’ traditional bargaining power for their white workers’[5]. Unions have since changed their position and the movement has become more inclusive and supportive of immigrant workers. Nonetheless at the time it was a duck soup for the Party. Immigration was an increasingly salient issue, becoming a top four voting issue in the 1971 General Election[6], in part because of Powell’s infamous offering to the debate in his 1968 rivers of blood speech.

The conscription of Commonwealth cadets for Britain’s war efforts, coupled with the New Commonwealth immigration which occurred following the 1948 British Nationality Act (which gave equal citizenship rights to all Commonwealth citizens) and labour market shortages following the War, saw a surge in Britain’s non-white population in the post-war period. As a result immigration and race developed as intertwined, if not entirely synonymous issues for the British political elite.

With race riots becoming a frequent occurrence, and racial discrimination becoming impossible to ignore, achieving racial equality became an issue the Party had to attend to. The best way to stop the ‘race card’ being played, and to fend off a potentially successful National Front party was, so the two main parties conceded, to defuse the issue and hold a bipartisan consensus that good race relations required limited immigration, otherwise known as the ‘Hattersely equation’[7] named after Labour MP and Home secretary Roy Hattersley.  

But it would be unfair to dismiss Labour’s approach as purely reactionary. The Labour Party focused much of their efforts on improving race relations, best signified by their introduction of anti-discrimination measures in the form of the 1968 Race Relations Act and the 1976 Race Relations Act. Labour’s endeavours served them well electorally; ethnic minority polling since the 1970s verifies that non-white voters prefer Labour ‘to its principal electoral rival by an overwhelming margin’[8]. Labour’s approach to immigration embodied the Party’s identity. An economically protectionist position which required safeguarding the resident population from a potential influx of cheap labour capable, dovetailed with the Party’s fundamental principles of openness, equality and tolerance personified in the Party’s progressive race relations agenda.

New Party, New Labour: 1997-2010

Where in the post-war period race and immigration had been conflated, with the latter being seen as the cause of fractious race relations, by the late 1990s when Labour returned to office, the nature of the debate had shifted. The stock and type of immigration had changed; partly as a result of political changes worldwide people across many nations were fleeing their countries in fear of persecution, (subsequently Britain saw its asylum applications greatly increase) but also because through processes of economic globalisation labour immigration was arguably becoming more commonplace. Immigration to Britain was no longer confined to New Commonwealth citizens. There was much less talk of race relations, and immigration was starting to be framed as an entirely separate, albeit negative, issue.

The Labour governments of 1997-2010 were nothing short of hyperactive about immigration. During its 13 years in office, no fewer than 10 parliamentary acts on immigration and asylum, along with several major reforms to the immigration system were passed, and countless policy documents were published[9]. In the area of labour immigration the government made a ‘decisive break with the previous policy model’[10], heralding a system of selective admission driven by employer demand. In contrast to the control-obsessed rhetoric of the past, Labour’s ‘managed migration’ programme sought to accentuate the economic benefits of selective immigration[11]. With two and a half million foreign born workers added to the population since 1997 and over half of the UK’s foreign born population arriving between 2001 and 2011, it is no exaggeration to say that immigration under Labour quite literally ‘changed the face’ of Britain[12]. These reforms were driven by an economic logic in a time of unprecedented economic boom. But ultimately it is the ideological reorientation of Labour which explains why a Party would employ what turned out to be such an electorally risky policy.

Following the infamous rebrand of Labour, the Party that came to power with a landslide victory in 1997 was a very different beast from previous Labour governments. While Old Labour was committed to nationalisation, redistribution, and regulation, New Labour reconciled itself – some would say embraced – privatisation, deregulation and limits on redistribution[13]. Whether New Labour was so “new” or just an ‘accommodation’ of Thatcherism[14] is debatable, but in any case the Party undoubtedly moved to the right in terms of their neoliberal economic policy. Central to this was the yearning for counter-inflationary credibility and in turn labour market flexibility. Pursued through Brown’s Treasury[15], increasing labour immigration flows was part of the remedy to achieve such labour market flexibility.

Underpinning the economic programme was a fundamental belief in the inevitability of globalisation. Britain was said to be living in an interdependent world of frictionless markets which needed to be harnessed, not resisted. As the ‘human face of globalisation’, immigration was assumed by the government to be both inevitable and intrinsically positive. This economistic reasoning was reinforced by the Party’s cosmopolitan pluralism and multicultural integration policy, based on a progressive interpretation of British identity which encompassed tolerance, openness and internationalism; what Blair called ‘enlightened patriotism’. With a governing Party committed to a programme of open markets, competiveness, flexibility and an ‘open global society’[16], it would seem at odds to have anything but an expansive immigration policy.

Labour’s immigration policy and indeed the shift to a managed migration mirrored the Party’s new found third way philosophy. As the Party ideologically veered to the centre, ratified their economic programme towards a neo-liberal, globalised understanding of the economy, so did immigration policy shift. The Party are now soul-searching, attempting to establish a new identity which brings the Party back to its roots whilst able to respond to the modern challenges which currently underpin the political debate. The repercussions for the party’s immigration policy remain to be seen. 

Labour soul-searching: 2010...

As of 2014, the Labour Party seems to lack clarity in their immigration policy, but a further move towards the right seems undeniable and an equally restrictive policy seems imminent if they return to office in 2015. The ideological conundrum which immigration presents to centre-left parties, between labour market protectionism and cosmopolitan internationalism[17], seems to have reared its ugly head and the Party are split on the issue. Former shadow health Minister Diane Abbott has speculated that the Labour Party are ‘pandering without offering concrete solutions’, and Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Keith Vaz, has similarly been critical of Labour’s policy declaring that ‘it’s time to end the immigration arms race’.

In an effort to remedy this, factions of the Party formed the policy group Blue Labour in 2009, led by Labour peer Maurice Glasman. The policy group was grounded in the idea that working class voters will be won back by shifting slightly to socially conservative position on particular issues. The contributors conflate importing immigrant labour with the idea of markets having ‘free rein’. A liberal immigration policy is regarded as symptomatic of rampant capitalism. This is ultimately a battle between the contradictory tenets of Labour as both liberals and communitarians, which the Blue labour hymnbook, to its credit, recognises. But what is the solution according to Blue Labour? Well, ‘migration would be managed, with new arrivals welcomed but expected to contribute and engage’[18]. Sensible enough, but it lacks policy substance! If the Party are truly looking for new appealing solutions, there is barely a cigarette paper to separate Blue Labour from the Tories.  The hype of Blue Labour has died down of late, but the tenets of Blue Labour persist in guiding the opposition’s immigration policy. Evidently the Party desperately want to distance themselves from their predecessors’ immigration legacy and the core leadership are adamant to concede that they ‘made mistakes’ on immigration.

The Party have not explicitly stated their immigration policy, but it will certainly not liberalise or expand immigration. Miliband, like Cameron, sees immigration as a multifaceted issue, linked above all to the way the economy is structured. Labour can answer people’s concerns about immigration if they can reform the way the British economy works. Miliband seeks a ‘responsible capitalism’ which ‘offers working people a crack at the whip’. Former shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant has similarly linked the demand for immigrant labour with rising youth unemployment and has called on business to ‘do their bit’ by ensuring training and support of ‘local young people’ and by avoiding agencies which only recruit from overseas.

The recurring theme from the Labour elite appears to be based on the idea that a stricter enforcement of the minimum wage will reduce the demand for overseas workers and irregular immigration, epitomised by the policy where the Party will purportedly ‘double the fines for minimum wage breaches and illegal employment of illegal immigrants’. Labour have been relatively silent on student immigration. The only insinuation has come from Bryant who remarked in a speech that ‘the international student market is one in which we should be hoping to grow our share not slash it’, perhaps implying that if the party does retain the problematic net migration target, students may be excluded from such targets, as has been argued by ‘Labour’s so-called civil service’  think tank IPPR. The Party have however made a firm stance on further EU immigration. Miliband has promised that they would place full transitional controls on any new EU accession state[19], although he rejects blocking free movement of workers from the EU. Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna has also claimed that the Party may change freedom of movement rules for EU citizens; a somewhat populist remark given the evidence that EU migrants do not cause job displacement amongst the native workforce. Miliband has further stated that if the evidence shows that the annual cap on immigration has not caused problems for the British economy, a Labour government would maintain it[20] although he will not ‘set false targets or make false promises’. The implication being that Labour’s immigration policy will remain on the same restrictionist platform as the Coalition’s.

Is this rhetoric symbolic of a move to the right, and an ‘immigration arms race’, or a return to Old Labour values of protectionism and a policy for the ‘losers of globalisation’[21]? Either way it seems the Labour Party is a long way away from the 2000s sentiment of ‘no limits to immigration’. The Party is in the midst of an identity crisis and the need to distance themselves from their New Labour predecessors is evident and understandable, but also deplorable. The Party’s values are founded on tolerance, openness and equality which are all synonymous with a progressive immigration, at least in rhetoric if not policy. The Party were the champions of race relations legislation – indeed they led the way for Europe in this area – and have held a consistently progressive record on eradicating racial discrimination. Of course race and immigration are by no means synonymous but with the dangerous anti-immigrant hyperbole that the Tories, and by implication the Liberal Democrats and UKIP seem so keen to employ, if Labour will not espouse a progressive rhetoric and dampen this toxic rhetoric, who will? With a complete absence of pro-migrant mobilisation on the national platform, it is time for Labour to step up, stop ducking the issue and return to its roots as a party committed to equality and embrace the progressive voice it once had.

This article is part of NLP's Immigration series

Erica Consterdine is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex in the Politics and Contemporary European Studies Department. Her PhD research focuses on immigration policy under the Labour governments (1997-2010).


[1] Mulvey, G. (2011) ‘Immigration Under New Labour: Policy and Effects.’ Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37(9), p. 1487

[2] Lahav, G. 1997. ‘Ideological and Party Constraints on Immigration Attitudes in Europe.’ Journal of Common Market Studies 35(3), pp. 382.

[3] Bale, T. 1999. Sacred Cows and Common Sense: The Symbolic Statecraft and Political             Culture of the British Labour Party. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, p. 7.

[4] Green, J. and Hobolt, S. (2008) ‘Owning the issue agenda: Party strategies and vote choices in British elections’, Electoral Studies, 27(3): 460-476.


[5] Annual Conference Report, TUC. London, p. 312

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[8] Messina, A. (2004) ‘Ethnic minorities and the British party system in the 1990s and beyond’ in S.Saggar (ed) Race and British electoral politics London: Routledge, p. 52

[9] including the establishment of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and the formation of the Migratory Advisory Committee (MAC).  

[10] Somerville, W. (2007) Immigration Under New Labour. Bristol : Policy Press, p. 29.

[11] Home Office. (2002), Secure Borders, Safe Havens. London: Home Office [online] “available from” -

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[13] Hall, S. (2003) ‘The Great Moving Nowhere Show’ in A. Chadwick and R. Heffernan (eds.) The New Labour Reader. Cambridge: Polity press, pp: 82-88.

[14] Heffernan, R. (2000) New Labour and Thatcherism: Political Change in Britain. Hampshire: Macmillan Press.

[15] HM Treasury (2004) Long-Term Global Economic Challenges and Opportunities for the UK. London: HM Treasury. Available at:

[16] Blair, T. (2000) ‘Speech at the World Economic Forum meeting’, Davos, Switzerland, 18 January.

[17] Odmalm, P. 2014. The Party Politics of Immigration and the EU. Hampshire: Palgrave.


[18] Cooke, G. (2011) ‘New and Blue’ in The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox edited by M.Glasman, J. Rutherford, M. Stears and S. White, pp: 133-140.

[19] Miliband, E. (2012) ‘Ed Miliband Immigration Speech’, 14th December 2012. Online, available at:

[20] Miliband, E. (2012) ‘New immigration requires a new economy’. Speech given to the Institute for Public Policy Research at the Royal Festive Hall, 22nd June 2012. Online available at:

[21] Kriesi, H. and Frey, T. (2008) ‘The United Kingdom: moving parties in a stable configuration’ in H. Kriesi, E. Grande, R. Lachat, M. Dolerzal, S. Bornschier and T. Frey (eds) West European Politics in the Age of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp: 183-208.

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