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Ditching Rwanda won't be enough

Starmer's speech on Friday is further proof Labour would, actually, be an improvement over the Tories - but in its current form, these changes should only the the beginning of much deeper asylum reform. 

May 11 2024, 14.45pm
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Given the news earlier in the week - hard-right Tory Natalie Elphicke defecting to Labour, ostensibly over border security - the news that the Labour leader was going to finally set out his stall on "illegal" immigration caused concern. In the event, as an election pitch, Friday's speech didn't do too badly. As a policy, it leaves a vast amount to be desired. 

The main headline for those already inclined to vote against the Tories but sometimes finding themselves needing to squint to tell the difference between the two parties: Starmer has finally vowed, unequivocally, to scrap the sadistically stupid Rwanda scheme. This is a vast improvement on Labour's line over the past few years - either skirting the question or choosing to attack the cost and practicality of the scheme, as if there was a world in which forcibly offshoring refugees to a third country was a policy that deserved to be implemented, even if cost-free.

Conversely, Starmer hinged his own plan on close, reciprocal international cooperation, making his policy virtually theft-proof to the Tories. He also spoke of the plight of refugees, taking great care to differentiate between the people languishing on the asylum trail and its ghastly waypoints, and the smugglers who profit from their misery. And Starmer used all of his prosecutorial panache to promise an "elite" new force that will take the fight to the traffickers, promising a reform of the siloed and inefficient asylum and border security systems thrown up by successive Conservative governments. 

As our new Westminster Editor Zoë Grünewald notes, each component of the speech was crafted for particular audiences and media amplifiers: The Guardian led with the scrapping of the Rwanda Scheme, The Sun trumpeted Starmer's op-ed promising tough new border agencies (spies!) and the promise to take on the gangs and profiteers (terrorists!). Labour MPs, restive after Elphicke's unwelcome defection, seemed broadly pleased and relieved (see below.) 

But if implemented in the real world, Starmer's promises will fall far short of addressing the crisis - not least because they merely shore up the system that has made migration into a "crisis" to begin with.

The system, which says you can't travel to the UK to claim asylum like a normal passenger (you'll be stopped from boarding), is the root cause of the small boat influx, the renaissance of slavery, and the distraction of border forces from smugglers of actually dangerous cargo: guns and drugs.

And the class of profiteers is much vaster than mere smugglers: boutique security companies and vast agencies like Frontex are surely profiteering too, as do some governments; what was the Rwanda scheme, after all, if not a people-trafficking conspiracy on a mammoth scale, with the Tories hoping to reap political profit and the Kagame government benefitting in cold hard cash? 

That this particular program is to be eliminated under Starmer government is a relief. But to truly make migration work the benefit of both Britain and the new arrivals, a sensible government would take a very different track: open up safe routes for coming here for asylum, make use of and pay fairly for of their desperately needed talents, skills and labour; and freeing up border resources to deal with actual threats, yanking the rug from under smuggling operations altogether.

Would this have made a better election pitch in the current climate? Unlikely. And ultimately Starmer's address should be judged like any electoral speech: an advertisement trying to corner the voting market. It does suggest, in line with much other evidence, that a newly elected Labour government will actually offer some improvement on the Tories. But as with so many other issues, serious work on this improvement - moving the dial from "some" to "tangible" to "vast" - , can only really begin once that Labour government is in place. 

(DR

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