The 201 0 general election was the most unpredictable and enthralling in recent history. This article delves into the election through the prism of immigration. How did immigration play in the election and in the actual campaigns? What was the salience of immigration to the result? What lessons can be learned as immigration assumes critical importance to the Labour leadership election?
This article is divided into three parts. In the first part we focus on how immigration and immigration policy changed under the Labour government. Second, we analyse how immigration played in the election and critique the gathering wisdom of how immigration drove Labour's loss and the Liberal Democrats' 'boom and bust'. We find voters did switch from Labour and the Liberal Democrats as a result of immigration, but also that these were second order issues and less important than in 2005: in 2010, economic issues were manifestly more important.
Finally, we begin to unpick the implications of that analysis, focusing in particular on how a social democratic narrative might develop in the longer term and what lessons could be learned.
Immigration under New Labour
Labour in power made substantial changes to immigration policy. Prior to 1999, the country's immigration policy framework had been in place for more than a generation. The approach, created when the British Empire was being dismantled, was based on two pillars. The first pillar, limitation, comprised three laws - enacted in 1962, 1968, and 1971 - that together had the goal of restricting immigration. The 1971 Immigration Act, the capstone legislation that repealed all previous laws, made a strong statement: Britain was a country of 'zero net immigration'. The second pillar, integration, involved a framework of race relations inspired by the US civil-rights movement. The most potent policy measures were anti-discrimination laws, in a limited form in the 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts and most comprehensively enacted in the 1976 Race Relations Act. The dominant post-war policy model thus emphasised both the integration of immigrants through a 'race relations' approach and the restriction of immigration (Somerville, 2007).
The Labour Party discarded this template. Politicians made a commitment to economic migration as part of economic policy and, as a result, limiting or restricting immigration was no longer the sole goal. Among the most important new policies that enabled change were those aimed at high-skilled immigrants (such as the Highly Skilled Migrants Program, now incorporated in Tier 1 of the new Points-Based System or PBS); the expansion and redesign of the work-permit system (now Tier 2 of PBS); and measures to attract international students (including two Prime Ministers' Initiatives).
While the government has opened up channels for students and certain workers, it has also attempted to restrict other migration streams, notably asylum, in response to increased application numbers in the last decade (which peaked in 2001-2002) and public and media pressure to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers, and in more recent years aimed to reduce immigration - and especially illegal immigration - full stop. Successive pieces of legislation have sought to curb the number of asylum applications, speed up application processing, and more effectively deport failed asylum seekers. The government also instituted a set of internal and external measures to reduce 'undesirable flows'. These include more restrictive visa regimes for some countries and mandatory identity cards for foreign nationals living in the UK. In addition, the government has implemented major institutional reforms, probably the most important of which was the creation of a separate arms-length agency that has greater operational freedom and combines customs and immigration functions: the UK Border Agency.
Overall, Labour was a boldly reforming government on immigration, re-casting immigration policy as a component of economic policy. …