The British Election: Party promises and immigration policies

By Kelly Soderstrom
PhD candidate, International Relations, University of Melbourne

While Brexit looms over the UK’s general election, the main parties manifestos show us that this election is likely to be a turning point for immigration policy

Of the four key elements that are intended to move freely within the European Union – goods, services capital and people – it’s the movement of people that has generated the greatest controversy and the issue was at the heart of the pro-leave Brexit campaign in 2016.

As the UK braces for a general election on 12 December, its potential exit from the European Union brings with it the possibility of future restrictions to the freedom of movement between the UK and EU.

The future of immigration has therefore received particular attention from political parties and voters.

But what are the main parties’ Brexit platforms and what does this mean for immigration in a post-Brexit Britain?

The Conservative Party

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement, signed with the EU in October, remains at the center of the Conservative Party’s Brexit strategy.

According to their manifesto, the party hopes to push the Agreement through Parliament before December 25th, with an exit from the EU occurring in January 2020.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement, freedom of movement for EU and UK citizens would be maintained through the two-year, post-Brexit transition period.

While the current EU Settlement Scheme has come under fire for its confusing application process, the scheme would most likely be maintained throughout this period.

It would require that all EU citizens apply for settled status in the UK, with reciprocal requirements for UK citizens likely implemented in EU states.

After the transition period, however, the Conservative Party wants to change this.

According to the manifesto, the Conservative Party wants to institute an “Australian-style points-based immigration system”.

Under this system, points are awarded based on the desirability of certain professional and personal characteristics, but a minimum number are required to qualify for various work, study, and residence visas.

Talk of introducing an Australian-style points-based system is nothing new.

Promises to implement a system like this were made by the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 and the UKIP campaign in 2017 in order to better “control” immigration to the UK.

While the UK already has a points-based immigration system for non-EU/EEA nationals, the proposed Australian-style system is more restrictive.

EU citizens seeking to immigrate to the UK after the transition period would be subject to stricter immigration policies than those currently governing non-EU/EEA immigration policies.

And it’s a far cry from the freedom of movement that is currently enjoyed by both EU and UK citizens.

The Labour Party

The Brexit plan proposed by the Labour Party in their manifesto presents a very different vision for Brexit and future migration prospects.

If elected with a majority, the Labour Party promises to negotiate a “revised Withdrawal Agreement” with the EU.

After the new deal has been secured, Labour says it will then hold a second, legally binding referendum within the first six months of being in government.

This second referendum would present the option of Brexit under the revised Withdrawal Agreement or no Brexit.

Under this new Brexit deal, Labour plans to grant EU nationals currently living in the UK the “automatic right to continue living and working in the UK” rather than requiring registration through the current EU Settlement Scheme.

Labour argues that this will ensure reciprocal treatment for UK citizens in the EU as well as avoid repeating the 2018 Windrush scandal.

While automatically granting all EU citizens residency in the UK would streamline the transition for current EU citizens, the policy is vague regarding what this means for future immigrants from the EU.

The Labour Party also assumes reciprocity in granting immediate settled status to UK citizens in EU states, which is not guaranteed.

The Labour manifesto is also unclear on what future immigration policies in the UK would look like. The policies affecting EU citizens would depend on the outcome of the renewed Withdrawal Agreement negotiations.

While the manifesto argues the importance of maintaining liberal migration policies such as free movement between the UK and EU, it is vague on how it plans to pursue those policies in the proposed Brexit renegotiations.

Notably, the controversial Labour Party conference promise to “maintain and extend free movement rights” is missing, with only the promise of expanded family reunification rights included in the manifesto.

While the Labour plan may make it easier for current EU immigrants to remain in the UK, immigration after Brexit could be much more restrictive than under the current regime of freedom of movement.

The Liberal Democrats

The Brexit plan proposed by the Liberal Democrats is simple – stop Brexit.

In their manifesto, the Liberal Democrats promise to revoke Article 50 if elected as a majority and continue to fight to stop Brexit if elected in a minority.

By revoking Article 50 and remaining as a member state in the EU, the Liberal Democrats promise to maintain the freedom of movement currently enjoyed by UK and EU citizens.

This means no replacement settlement scheme is needed to allow EU citizens in the UK to remain now or in the future.

Immigration beyond Brexit

The future of UK immigration policy after Brexit is uncertain.

While the Conservative Party hopes to implement more restrictive immigration policies, the Liberal Democrats hope to maintain freedom of movement for both UK and EU citizens.

Even though it remains unclear how the Labour Party plans to govern future EU immigration, current EU immigrants to the UK will be granted immediate settled status.

According to estimates by British market research company, YouGov, the Conservatives are projected to win a majority in the upcoming general election.

If the Tories do win a majority on 12 December, we may indeed see the UK exiting the EU in January 2020 and a much harder line when it comes to the country’s UK immigration policies.

Banner image: Arrivals from the European Union customs channel at Stansted Airport, England, UK, 8 January, 2017  Source: Shutterstock

The University of Melbourne is livestreaming a Q+A roundtable, Britain has voted … now what?. Join Professor Philomena Murray, Associate Professor Timothy Lynch and Dr Tom Daly, along with host Annika Smethurst, as they break down the UK’s general election result – and look at the implications for Brexit, Europe and the world. We want to hear from you with your questions and comments on  Facebook LiveTwitter Periscope or YouTube Live  – so join us online on Tuesday 17 December 2019 between 6-7pm AEDT.


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