On why the Labour Party engages in anti-immigration rhetoric rather than talking sensibly about Covid-19 travel restrictions and confronts the government’s failures.

First published in February 2021.

I saw the advert below – which deliberately or otherwise fairly clearly links travel restrictions during a pandemic with border controls as a security measure – after reading an interesting Guardian piece by Chaminda Jayanetti on Labour and its immigration policy.

The Labour Party advert to target Red Wall voters. | Facebook

Despite immigration always appearing to be a live rail in politics, the curious thing is that both Labour and the Conservatives have, broadly speaking, been fairly similar in their weaponisation of migrants to gain votes and pushing for “controls”.

Now, is it fair to suggest that an advert specifically targeted at Red Wall voters asking why borders are still open is continuing this move? I would argue, yes. It is not hard to see how “border controls” have superseded “travel restrictions” as the phrase of the issue.

Border controls, however, have a specific meaning in the minds of a lot of people. It’s a reinforcement of the idea that we need to “control immigration”, among other catch phrases. It is called “securitization”. Making out that everything to do with borders is about security.

The interesting thing though is that attitudes towards immigration are softening. It is no longer one of the main “trigger” issues for many voters and it tends to be areas with lower immigration which still see higher anti-immigration sentiments.

Migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. | Frontex/Francesco Malavolta

That leads to the problem.

It is predominantly migrants’ rights organisations, such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, and campaigners who are left to make the positive case for immigration. While politicians across the political spectrum, with some notable exceptions, still use migrants as pawns.

Even with softening attitudes there is a lot of work to be done to improve perception of immigration. Demographics are shifting though and political parties which cling to outdated concepts of “immigration controls” and “border closures” are liable to be hit at the ballot box in future.

Labour Leader Keir Starmer. | Instagram/Parliament UK

Voters are also becoming increasingly aware of how they can be manipulated as well, including through the influence of language which creates a subconscious bias, such as saying “border controls” rather than “travel restrictions”.

I agree with Chaminda Jayanetti that anti-immigration voters are more exercised than pro-immigration ones. I would argue, however, that considering that anti-immigration sentiments are in the minority in the UK, the task should be to get those who are pro-immigration to be more vocal.

The first step towards that is to stop outright obvious pandering to anti-immigration sentiments. It is not hard to make strong cases to remove the hostile environment, support family reunification, end the no recourse to public funds, etc.

It does take the will to do so though.  

Dan Sohege, Human rights advocate, international refugee law specialist, immigration economist, charity fundraising professional and Director of Stand For All.

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 3 February 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Instagram/House of Commons. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)