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Labour Party leader outlines approach to immigration in significant speech to the CBI, confirms commitment to points-based system and need for more training of UK-based workers


Starmer says British economy should be weaned off "immigration dependency" but gives no net migration target

Date of Publication:
23 November 2022

A significant speech by Keir Starmer to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) yesterday provided the Labour leader with a high-profile platform to outline the Opposition's policy on work-related immigration.

Labour Party logoAs we reported last week on EIN, Stephen Kinnock, Labour's shadow immigration minister, spoke in support of more training for UK workers and a points-based system for migrant workers during a Commons debate on temporary visas. Keir Starmer firmly underlined that approach yesterday.

Starmer told the CBI that the British economy needs to be weaned off its "immigration dependency".

While some took the speech to signal a shift to the right on immigration and a desire for less workers to come to the UK, the Guardian noted that the Labour leader later refused to say whether he wanted overall immigration figures to come down. "I'm not going to pluck an arbitrary number and say that's the right number," Starmer was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

In response to a question in the post-speech press conference, Starmer spelt it out in more detail, saying: "On the question of numbers, I always start with what is driving the numbers when we discuss immigration and if what's driving the numbers is our skills failure … then I think we need to address the skills issue rather than just talking about arbitrary numbers. … That does mean, if we get this right, immigration will go down in some of those areas that are overly reliant on immigration, but equally we are not going to hold businesses back if there's innovation, technology where we do need talent from abroad."

The key section on immigration from Starmer's speech to the CBI was as follows:

"We won't ignore the need for workers to come to this country. We can't have a situation, as we did with HGV drivers, where temporary shortages threaten to cripple entire sectors of our economy. That would be anti-growth and anti-business.

"But I want to be clear here – with my Labour Government, any movement in our points-based migration system – whether via the skilled worker route, or the shortage occupations list – will come alongside new conditions for business.

"We will expect you to bring forward a clear plan to boost skills and more training, for better pay and conditions, for investment in new technology. We can talk about how this is done – dialogue is at the heart of partnership but negotiation with trade unions will be part of it.

"I said at the TUC conference: my Labour Party is unashamedly pro-business and I say here today – that trade unions must be a crucial part of our partnership.

"But our common goal must be to help the British economy off its immigration dependency to start investing more in training workers who are already here.

"Migration is part of our national story – always has been, always will be and the Labour Party will never diminish the contribution it makes to our economy, to public services, to your businesses and our communities.

"But let me tell you – the days when low pay and cheap labour are part of the British way on growth must end. This isn't about Brexit. All around the world, business is waking up to the fact we live in a new era for labour. And while they're adapting, our low-wage model is holding us back."

Reaction was mixed as to exactly where Labour now stands on immigration.

The speech prompted former UKIP leader Nigel Farage to say: "Labour are now to the right of the Tories on immigration". Carla Denyer, joint leader of the Green Party, took a similar view and said it seems Starmer was now "trying to outflank the Tories on anti-migrant rhetoric".

Professor Jonathan Portes from King's College London called Starmer's rhetoric on immigration "incoherent, evidence-free nonsense". Portes asked: "Is the 'immigration dependency' he complains about that business prefer skilled workers from abroad, or that they depend on 'low pay and cheap labour'?"

In contrast, The Independent had previewed the speech with a title declaring 'Labour would relax immigration rules to help business growth, Keir Starmer to say'. The Telegraph ran a post-speech article entitled 'Keir Starmer refuses to commit to cutting total UK migration numbers' to highlight the Labour leader's failure to confirm a desire for net migration to fall.

Sunder Katwala, the director of the think-tank British Future, took a more middling view and said claims Labour were somehow following UKIP on immigration were manifestly false. "Labour is not proposing any fall in immigration numbers, nor any overall targets, but says pragmatic flexibility on shortage occupations will depend on commitments to domestic training," Katwala added.

The Guardian's financial editor Nils Pratley said similar, noting: "It would be easy, on the basis of the main soundbites from Keir Starmer's speech to the CBI conference on Tuesday, to conclude that Labour, in a cynical vote-chasing strategy, has decided to copy Tory crowd-pleasing lines on immigration and labour shortages. … Dig a little into the speech and Labour's emerging policy on immigration and it was possible to glimpse something more grown-up and nuanced: a pragmatic position that recognises some labour pressures are genuine, the current migration rules are too inflexible and that the UK economy is being held back as a result."

The shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper provided a helpfully brief summary of Labour policy (brief enough to fit on Twitter) as follows: "Labour supports a Points Based System for immigration and we will link it to improving training and employment standards - so our country benefits from international talent and from serious plan to boost skills and increase economic activity in UK."