Sunday, 1 March 2015

Getting swept away: New Labour’s Immigration Policy

Erica Consterdine discusses Labour's immigration policy.

Campaign season is upon us, and as a result we see all parties desperately promoting their policy packages. For the Labour Party, arguably the most divisive policy issue, and the one in which they have some way to convince the public, is immigration. And with the saliency only rising, consistently polling as a top three voting issue, it is a matter which Labour will have to stop ducking.


Aside from the fact that the Conservatives ‘own’ the issue[1], the British public were not best pleased at the Labour government’s expansionary development of immigration policy, which culminated in 2.5 million foreign born workers added to the UK population. Miliband knows this, such a legacy has dogged their time in opposition, and as a result Miliband has consistently apologised for the ‘mistakes’ his predecessors made.

But this wouldn’t, or certainly shouldn’t, have come to a shock to Labour. In no Western European country can politicians expect to gain votes by favouring new immigration[2].  Consequently, those who have studied the relationship between parties and immigration policy outcomes have focused their attention on party strategy on the assumption that parties are above all vote-maximizers[3].

If we accept that ‘ideology is dead’, and that the art of politics is competency in ‘statecraft’, then the focus on party strategy, rather than ideology, is understandable. But with no electoral dividend to be gained, why did the Labour government pursue such an electorally risky policy? Whilst many argue that Labour’s managed migration agenda was a result of business lobbying, my research forthcoming in Journal of Ethnic & Migration Studies based on over 50 elite interviews, found that Labour’s ideological reorientation, their uncompromising belief in globalisation and the way in which this changed the Party elites’ preferences, was the principle cause of such a radical policy change.

The Labour government that came to power with a landslide victory in 1997 was a very different beast from previous Labour governments. The Party had ideologically re-orientated to the centre ground, washed their hands of left-wing militant tendencies and shed protectionist policies in favour of embracing the apparently new globalised world Britain found itself in.

The ideological reorientation of the Party is critical to understanding why economic immigration policy changed, because of three contingent elements of Labour’s new found philosophy: the Party’s neoliberal economic programme, including counter-inflationary measures and labour market flexibility; and underpinning this programme, the Party’s diagnosis of the global political economy. This economistic reasoning was reinforced by Labour’s culturally cosmopolitan notion of citizenship and integration. Coupled with Labour’s historical values of openness and tolerance, an expansive immigration policy ‘made political sense’ (Interview with Jon Cruddas MP, 2011).

The critical objective of Labour’s economic policy was stability. To achieve this Labour focused their efforts on counter-inflationary measures, and in turn labour market flexibility. This was built on the notion that extra competition in the labour market would reduce inflationary pressures. And what better way to ensure labour market flexibility then to increase the supply of workers. In this sense Labour’s immigration policy was ‘part of the wider economic framework’ (Interview with Labour MP). 

Furthermore, Britain’s outdated and insular approach to migration was, so the argument went, entirely unsuited to the needs of a knowledge economy in a globalised world. The global race for talent was on. The mantra of attracting the ‘brightest and the best’ was synonymous with the rhetoric of competiveness used to legitimise Labour’s orthodox macroeconomic policy.

But fundamentally underpinning Labours’ economic programme, and indeed the inception of “New” Labour altogether, was an uncompromising belief in globalisation. Economic globalisation was presented as a non-negotiable, external constraint, an irreversible fact of life, and a natural development of capitalism, which could not be controlled by human agency. According to Blair the only ‘rational response’ to globalisation was ‘to manage it, prepare for it, and roll with it’, for ‘we adjust or we are swept away’. Faced with the allegedly uncontrollable exogenous constraint of globalisation, Labour claimed there is simply no alternative[4].

The diagnosis or strategic blurring of globalisation as both inevitable and desirable is the defining reason why immigration policy shifted under Labour. However, the Party did not necessarily explicitly make the link between the rhetoric of globalisation on the one hand, and expansive immigration policies on the other. Rather, the logical extension of an ideology which hinged on globalisation was so deeply entrenched that with immigration being ‘the human element of globalisation’[5], it was likewise assumed to be both inevitable and intrinsically positive by the leading faction of the Party. As a result, the expansive reforms became ‘an unquestioned policy by the early 2000s’ (Interview with former SpAd, 2012).

This economistic reasoning was reinforced by a secondary aspect of the Third Way, its cosmopolitan pluralism, which was part of New Labour’s wider project of fostering a progressive interpretation of British identity based on ideas of tolerance, openness and internationalism; ‘enlightened patriotism’ as Blair called it. For all these reasons, immigration policy mirrored New Labour ideology.

The potential electoral damage such decisions have imprinted on the Labour opposition is evident. In turn it’s tempting to apply a post hoc rationalization to Labour’s immigration policy, and assume that the government must have been responding to employers’ lobbying demands. Yet the ideas of the time should not, and cannot, be detached from policymaking. Such findings suggest that future analyses of public policy change should not just question whether parties matter but show how they matter. Indeed, if we are to truly understand the processes of policymaking there is no alternative. 

Erica Consterdine is a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex.




[1] Green, J. and Hobolt, S. 2008. ‘Owning the issue agenda: Party strategies and vote choices in British elections.’ Electoral Studies 27(3), pp. 460-476.
[2] Lahav, G. 1997. ‘Ideological and Party Constraints on Immigration Attitudes in Europe.’ Journal of Common Market Studies 35(3), pp. 377-406, page 382.
[3] Bale, T., Green-Pedersen, C., Krouwel, A., Luther, K.R. and Sitter, N. 2010. ‘If you can’t beat them, join them? Explaining social democratic responses to the            challenge from the populist radical right in Western Europe’ Political Studies           58(3), pp. 410-426.

[4] Watson, M. and Hay, C. 2003. ‘The discourse of globalisation and the logic of no alternative: rendering the contingent necessary in the political economy of New Labour.’ Policy and Politics 31(3), pp. 289-305.
[5] OECD. 2009. International migration: the human face of globalisation. Paris: OECD.

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