Migrants and students have become scapegoats of the UK election

The problem arises if Labour, expected to win, runs with the Conservative party's poor immigration policy proposals

An inflatable dinghy carrying migrants crosses the English Channel in March. Getty Images
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English barber shops have a reputation that right wingers would like to make a feature of the UK general election on July 4.

In a country where the cost of living has shattered the governing Conservative party’s claims to competence, male hairdressing is cheap and has resisted integration with the digital economy. In other words, “cash only” is the key to its low-cost model.

But the anti-immigrant Reform UK party has questioned if these barbers are the gatekeepers of illegal migration. It asks if they are laundering dirty cash alongside the legitimate takings and exploiting low-skilled men who have entered the country from the Middle East and the Balkans.

It is a vignette that is telling about the opening phase of the election. A pivot to migration is overdue from a Conservative party that has so far rolled out its policies to woo older voters.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces his first TV debate head-to-head against Labour party leader Keir Starmer on Tuesday, and he can be expected to press his “tough on migration” dividing lines against the frontrunner. This is, in particular, the policy of shipping people to Rwanda that’s been described as “so tough it’s insane”.

Illegal migration to the UK has been made a category of crime that disbars the guilty from the asylum process. This is a tactic that speeds up deportation for arrivals, as well as a grievous blow against the international law on refugees’ right to a safe haven.

That Farage is now taking on the barbers is a pointer to what’s next on the fraught issues

Mr Sunak is troubled politically by the tens of thousands arriving in the UK, particularly the symbolic sight of scores packed on flimsy dinghies being rescued and brought into the harbour of Dover on the English Channel every day.

Everything about those scenes undermines the Conservative vision of an exceptional island that has held its national frontiers at Dover for more than a millennium.

Nigel Farage, the honorary president of Reform UK, claims to have seized on the Dover issue early and his YouTube commentaries against the backdrop of the arriving boats did stir the government into action.

That he is now taking on the barbers is a pointer to what’s next on the fraught issue. Hence Mr Sunak’s prime card in the election is the extraordinary effort the UK has mounted to send hundreds of these people to central Africa, where their claims will reportedly be processed for a safe haven status there.

Mr Starmer’s refusal to engage with the drastic nature of the Rwanda option is something that the Conservatives hope to exploit.

A former prosecutor, Mr Starmer has highlighted the corruption behind the migration flows and wants to go after the gang masters. It is a dry argument that may not resonate as much with large sections of the electorate. On the other hand, the polls have barely shifted, so Mr Starmer can sit tight.

The rise of the far right across Europe, armed with an agenda to clamp down on migration, is the main issue in the EU Parliament election in the coming week.

The remigration policy of the Alternative for Germany party is underpinning its bid for 20 MEPs in what would be a historic breakthrough. The Brothers of Italy, the party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, has success pinned on its plans to control the numbers of arrivals into the Mediterranean peninsula by deportations to Albania. Marine Le Pen is the front-runner in France, where she is vowing to salve anti-migration policies struck down by the country’s highest court.

The consequences for French President Emmanuel Macron of coming second or third in the elections are potentially far reaching on the European stage. There is an eclipse of fellow liberal leaders, such as the Netherlands’ departing Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and potentially Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. He faces a Flemish nationalist surge in national elections on June 9.

Even if the results of the election are that shrunken centrists come together to continue governing Europe through grand coalitions, there is a clear message coming from the voters. And even if the result in the UK is a landslide for Mr Starmer’s Labour, it has a challenge afterwards to take the country with it, particularly in areas where its own policy areas have been ill defined. Migration is one of those.

Bad ideas fired up in the heat of election campaigns have a habit of surviving despite being on the losing side. Migration toughness is one such area, with the potential to leach into other areas.

The Conservatives are now extending their crackdown to students, many of whom also happen to be migrants.

The rise of international student numbers in the UK over the past decade is an exports success story. Many courses are offered by educational institutions that have sprung up like businesses to meet this demand. Go into these universities or colleges, and the atmosphere is not much different to any other office block.

In campaign mode, the Conservatives have decided that these facilities are offering “Mickey Mouse” degrees. The party has promised to reallocate resources to UK-focused apprenticeships or learning-on-the-job qualifications.

Such a shift would take a chunk out of the annual net migration figures, as it looks like a large portion of the 700,000 foreign students could be at the risk of being made to leave the country immediately after graduation. Collateral damage would be the destruction of a successful sector of the UK economy that attracts worldwide talent.

These policies are another sign that the Conservatives deserve a period of rebirth on the opposition benches. For its part, Labour should consign them to history if it wins.

Of course, who is to say that Mr Starmer won’t use some remodelled versions of the Conservative ideas to prove that he is governing in a one-nation big tent? It would, however, be a temptation that should be well avoided.

Published: June 03, 2024, 4:00 AM
Updated: June 04, 2024, 10:40 AM