Labour win can shift the UK’s immigration stance, but only if Starmer embraces the diversity on offer

Sir Keir Starmer’s win as Labour leader in the UK should certainly be applauded, after a disastrous decade and a half with the Conservative Party at the helm of the country. And although as Prime Minister, he has immediately scrapped the controversial Rwanda deportation scheme for asylum seekers, this election will not spell the end for anti-migrant rhetoric.

Although I am a British citizen, I am first a Turk and have lived in the US, UK, and France as a migrant. With my employment, my education, language skills, and, I guess also my skin colour, I have not really been the target of overt racism towards me. But it was always in the UK where after someone complained about the criminal Turks coming into the EU during the Brexit campaign without knowing who I was and I shared that I am, in fact, Turkish that I got the response: “Oh, but you’re one of the good ones, we’re not talking about you” more than a few times.

So even when you meet someone from the country you’re judging and assuming things about, this anti-immigrant stance is so ingrained that it’s difficult to break away from. Who even decides who is a good migrant? Is it just how much money you make? Or is it based on whether you’ve moved voluntarily or forced to because of some horrible threat? Am I really a good migrant if I’m just hopping from country to country, voluntarily, earning an OK living, but not winning any prizes for my host countries either? 

Maybe it’s time to accept that we are all just humans, and there is good and bad in all of us, and with a sudden change in circumstances, anyone can become a migrant, asylum-seeker, or refugee.

Can Starmer change the UK’s approach to immigration?

Suella Braverman, the biggest fan of the plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda – not a safe country by UN standards – to be processed, retained her seat. And Nigel Farage’s right-wing, anti-immigration party Reform UK, won four seats, which cannot just be ignored.

The anti-migrant rhetoric is therefore set to continue in the UK and Starmer, and his Home Secretary Yvette Cooper’s stance from here on out will be crucial in changing attitudes, reminding people that immigrants are people and having a more human rights-based approach to immigration.

But I fear we will be sorely disappointed.

Before the elections Starmer allowed Natalie Elphicke, a former Conservative MP, into the Labour Party. She had previously been a harsh critic of Starmer’s stance on immigration, claiming that the Labour Party wants to open the UK’s borders. When she defected, the fact that she said the “safety and the security” of the country’s borders was among the key deciding factors is not a good indication that Starmer is offering anything that different than the cruelty-filled policies of the Tories.

So far, we don’t know much about the details of what Starmer is planning for immigration. Labour has set out some top-level plans. And the basic top line is reducing net migration – just like the Tory’s. It also revealed plans to increase enforcement through a new Border Security Command, hiring more people to process asylum applications and a commitment to stopping small boat crossings. Labour also supports a points-based system and wants to link immigration to training, whereby businesses applying for foreign worker visas will also need to train British workers for those jobs. It is a bit of a bare minimum list of promises.

But all of these commitments are just continuing the conversations that the right and far-right have started on immigration. The UK’s immigration system is in need of a desperate overhaul, but not with reducing net migration as the ultimate goal, but having a more humane system in place.

In an article published on openDemocracy, Zoe Gardner put it best: “If they don’t change course on migration soon, it will lead them straight into the same morass that the Conservatives currently find themselves in. Always ratcheting up the performative cruelty, never succeeding to do what they’ve promised. Nigel Farage will be delighted.”

Starmer should only look to Europe, in particular France, to see the effects of playing into the hands of the extreme right and using their rhetoric to discuss migration.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s increasing pandering to the National Front/National Rally on immigration has resulted in him handing the far right not only a victory in passing a clearly racist immigration law, but also a clear gain in legislative elections.

Farage will certainly have a lot to say on the matter, now that he has actually won a seat in parliament after his eighth attempt, and to make a lot of noise. But Starmer should rise above the noise and move the conversation elsewhere instead of meeting the far-right in their own playground.

So far, he hasn’t presented a very credible or exciting alternative to Tory immigration policies. There has been no mention of reversing some of the changes that Sunak’s government made to visa schemes, preventing many British people or foreign workers from bringing their foreign spouses into the country. Bachelor’s and Master’s students are also unable to bring dependents to the UK. According to estimates, around three-quarters of Brits cannot afford to reunite with their families through family visas anymore.

The last few decades have focused on scapegoating migrants, blaming them for all the country’s problems. Of course, this is not only in the UK but a common tactic worldwide.

“Othering” is an effective way to create fear and hate, and migrants are an easy target when those in power don’t want to accept blame for a country’s ills.

With many of its services dependent on immigration, its culture enriched by additions from other cultures, and its cities and universities full of first, second, third-generation immigrants, the UK and Starmer’s new government would do well to embrace the diversity immigration can offer, rather than vilifying migrants for short-term political gains. 

It’s only the first days, and the UK’s new prime minister can really make a difference if he wants to. 

Written by Selin Bucak. Find her latest articles here.
Cover by Dinara Satbayeva.