Immigration a central issue in UK election campaign

Aditi Khanna, London
Published : 02:00, Nov 16, 2019 | Updated : 02:00, Nov 16, 2019

Signage is seen at the UK border control point at the arrivals area of Heathrow Airport, London, September 3, 2018. Picture taken on September 3. REUTERSThe issue of migrants coming to live and work in the UK from around the world has become a central issue in the General Election campaign as Britain's main political parties have begun strongly clashing over their plans on managing the country’s border.
The ruling Conservatives pledged to “reduce immigration overall” by introducing an Australian-style points-based system for nationals of all countries, including Bangladesh, once the current European Union (EU) freedom of movement rules come to an end post-Brexit. On the other hand, the Opposition Labour Party had passed a resolution at its party conference in September that favoured an extension of the freedom of movement policy “beyond the EU”, which would cover countries such as Bangladesh.
Britain’s home secretary, Priti Patel, issued a strongly-worded letter to her Opposition counterpart demanding that Labour clarify its stance over the resolution, which it claims would lead to uncontrolled numbers flocking to the UK.
“As Home Secretary, I have grave concerns over the policy agreed at your conference which would place enormous strain on our public services and represent a considerable departure from our democratic norms, or indeed to norms of any Western-style democracy,” said Patel in her letter to shadow home secretary Diane Abbott.
“Analysis shows that it could lead to a trebling of net migration into the UK to 840,000 people per year – which would put huge pressure on our NHS [National Health Service]. Our national security would be imperilled by an ‘unconditional’ right to the family reunion which would give those subject to deportation orders, and those who have been deprived of their British citizenship after joining terrorist groups overseas the legal right to settle in the UK,” added the senior Cabinet minister.
Abbott took to Twitter to address the issue, saying the Labour Party is committed to “maintaining and extending” freedom of movement rights.
“The Tories will remove those rights from the EU 3 million. We will maintain them. The Tories break up families by barring spouses of British citizens, via an income requirement. Labour will scrap it, and extend freedom of movement rights to all those legally entitled to be here, including our own citizens among others,” she said.
Immigration and control over numbers entering the UK has been a dominant issue in all recent campaigns and was one of the key factors that resulted in Britain voting to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum. The previous Theresa May led Conservative government had pledged to bring nett migration down to the tens of thousands, a target the party has failed to meet over the years. In a significant shift in party policy under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Tories seem to have quietly dropped that target.
“We will reduce immigration overall while being more open and flexible to the highly skilled people we need, such as scientists and doctors. This can only happen if people vote for a Conservative majority government so we can leave the EU with a deal,” said Patel in a statement on the party's stance on the issue.
The Conservatives claim that if the party was to form a government following the election next month, its proposed system based on points for the English language as well as other skills would end the “preferential treatment” of migrants from within the EU and attract the “brightest and the best” from all over the world.
“Under Corbyn’s Labour, immigration would surge and put a huge strain on schools and our NHS. Jeremy Corbyn has no credible plan for how to deal with the consequences of his open borders policy,” added Patel, in reference to an analysis conducted by the party on Labour’s plans.
Labour’s Abbott branded this “more fake news” from the Conservative Party’s “make-believe” research department.
“The damage done to our society has been through damaging Conservative cuts to our public services, not by EU nationals coming to work in them,” she said.
However, an internal divide has opened up with the Labour Party itself over this issue, with many in the top team opposed to such strong backing for free movement.
The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats also pitched in with an attack on the Tories for propagating an agenda akin to US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“The Conservatives’ approach to immigration is an insult to the millions who have come to the UK and made it their home. Immigration brings so much to our communities, culture and economy,” said Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson.
“Patel’s comments show that the Tories only care about arbitrarily reducing immigration numbers with no regard for the consequences. Our public services, including our NHS, rely on the contribution that immigrants make. But the Tories are willing to put this at risk just to pursue a nationalist Trumpian agenda,” she said.
With the battle lines were clearly drawn, immigration is once again set to play a strong role in the campaign in the lead up to polling day on December 12.