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UK election 2024: comparing the manifestos

28 Jun 2024

by Ben Brindle and Peter William Walsh

This commentary evaluates the immigration policies that the Conservative and Labour parties say they will implement if they win the next election. It originally featured in UK in a Changing Europe and Full Fact’s 2024 manifesto analysis and looks at both legal migration and asylum policies.

Legal Migration


The Conservative and Labour parties both say they want to reduce legal migration from its historically high levels. Net migration – a measure of the number of people arriving minus the number leaving – increased sharply post-Brexit, peaking at 764,000 in 2022. Despite a 10% fall in 2023, to an estimated 685,000, net migration remained significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels of roughly 250,000.

That being said, regardless of who forms the next government, net migration levels are expected to fall sharply from 2024 onwards, for two main reasons. First, emigration of former international students is increasing following the boom in student arrivals between 2021 and 2023. Second, the Conservative government introduced various measures restricting migration between January and April 2024 which we might reasonably expect to bring numbers down. Work visa numbers are already falling very sharply. However, it is unclear how large the decline will be.

Research evidence cannot tell us what the ‘right’ level of net migration is, for a number of reasons. Migration impacts across a wide range of policy areas, from tax and spending to labour markets to housing, so there are inevitably trade-offs between different policy objectives. Moreover, these trade-offs will vary over time, with the state of the economy as well as other factors. And the impacts of migration differ depending on who is coming to the UK, not just how many people are. The impacts of policies to reduce net migration will thus depend significantly on which groups are targeted for more restrictive policies.

What the manifestos say

Both major parties say they want to go further to reduce migration than the policies the current government has already introduced (most of which Labour do not oppose). To do this, they would take different approaches, however. As one analysis puts it, the Conservatives want to restrict the supply of migration while Labour want to reduce demand. Labour also puts more emphasis on addressing exploitation of migrants on work visas.

The Conservatives want to introduce an annual cap on work and family visa grants, with the specific level of the cap based on recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and then voted on by parliament. By contrast, the Labour Party would look to address skills gaps in the UK economy. Under their proposals, sectors requesting high numbers of work visas would be required to create training plans, while the MAC would be linked to bodies setting out industrial strategy. The manifesto references “appropriate restrictions on visas” but without further detail.

The smaller parties flank Labour and the Tories on both sides. The Greens propose more liberal policies. For example, they would reverse recent restrictions on the family members of students and care workers – a policy that the major parties say they would retain. At the other end, Reform UK has said that net migration should be zero.


All policy choices on migration have trade-offs. If the next government wants to reduce net migration, the key challenge will be to do so in a way that mitigates any unintended economic or social impacts, from impacts on growth and tax revenues or university financing to social care provision and families.

The Conservatives’ proposal to cap visa grants would require the MAC to determine a single optimal level of migration. But migration has a range of costs and benefits, some of which are social rather than economic, and these are highly dependent on policy in other areas, such as health and social care or education. Moreover, it is unclear how the MAC’s view on an ‘optimal’ level would be reconciled with the commitment to year-on-year reductions, if the MAC took the view that an increase was appropriate.

Under the cap proposal, the government would need to decide what would happen if the cap is reached (e.g., a waiting list, lottery, or criteria to prioritise certain applications over others). While it is likely that a cap policy would reduce migration, caps can create uncertainty not only for applicants but also for employers because they cannot run recruitment processes knowing what the rules are and which jobs are eligible. If the cap was set on a sector basis, as the Conservatives propose, this system would require the MAC to make detailed forecasts of labour demand, an extremely demanding task in a relatively flexible and dynamic labour market like that of the UK.

The potential impacts of Labour’s plan to train UK-based workers are uncertain. While training has merits in its own right, it will not necessarily reduce work migration. This is because the level of jobs in the labour market is not fixed. If the number of engineers increases through training, for example, UK employers may simply decide to employ more engineers. Nor would training address high vacancy rates in the care sector. Here, the underlying driver of shortages is low pay and poor working conditions – caused in turn by limited government funding – which makes it difficult for care providers to retain workers. However, more effective training might potentially help mitigate the impacts of more restrictive work migration policies. Again, however, the proposals would require a degree of labour market planning that is likely to be difficult to deliver in the UK context.

Moreover, the desire of both parties to reduce migration substantially from current levels would have wider macroeconomic and fiscal impacts. The OBR estimates that lower net migration would have a fiscal cost, particularly in the short run (i.e., 5 years), although its magnitude would depend on which types of migration bore the brunt of any declines.

Small Boats and Asylum


While Labour and the Conservatives are not miles apart on the core migration system, the picture is quite different when it comes to small boat arrivals and the asylum system. This is where the most difficult immigration challenges for the incoming government lie. All parties want to tackle small boat arrivals, which stood at 29,000 last year. Almost all people arriving by small boat claim asylum (although many asylum applicants arrive through other routes, legal or illegal). Despite some significant progress in reducing the number of outstanding asylum claims in 2023, the total asylum backlog remained at around 86,000 at the end of March 2024 (more than 118,000 people when family members are included).

What the manifestos say

On small boat arrivals and asylum, three pledges are shared across the manifestos: reducing small boat arrivals, clearing the asylum backlog, and signing new agreements to help remove people without immigration status. On this last point, Labour goes further, committing to the creation of a new ‘returns and enforcement unit’ with a thousand extra staff.

Between the lines of the manifestos, however, Labour and the Conservatives are offering very different visions of how the asylum system will work. The main dividing lines are Rwanda and the Illegal Migration Act (IMA). The Conservatives say they will bring the Illegal Migration Act fully into force, which means that the government would no longer be able to process most asylum claims and instead would be committed to removing most people who apply for asylum to another country. In practice, this means Rwanda.

Labour would axe the Rwanda scheme, redirecting the money to a new Border Security Command, staffed by specialist investigators with counter-terror powers. While the manifesto does not explicitly say that it would repeal the Illegal Migration Act, Labour’s pledge to process claims and clear the backlog implies abandoning or substantially changing the process the IMA envisages. Labour plans to recruit additional caseworkers to process asylum claims (there are already over 2,000). Both parties promise forms of international cooperation: the Conservatives want to work with other countries to reform global asylum rules, while Labour seeks a new security agreement with the EU. Both parties commit to new returns agreements.


The Conservatives promise to have ‘all claims processed within six months’. This appears to be in tension with their plan to bring the IMA fully into force, as this would prevent the government from processing the claims of most asylum seekers. Labour’s plan to address the backlog is slightly clearer, as it does not commit to retaining the IMA.

For the Conservatives, the main unanswered question is what will happen to asylum seekers who are not removed to Rwanda. This group of people is already in the tens of thousands, and could remain indefinitely in the UK in receipt of asylum accommodation and support – what the Labour manifesto refers to as the ‘perma-backlog’.

While both parties want small boat arrivals to fall, there are no simple solutions to make this happen. The Conservatives’ approach relies on the idea that the Rwanda policy and Illegal Migration Act will be a deterrent. In practice, the size of any deterrent effect is highly uncertain. Past research has suggested that deterrence policies often have relatively small impacts. However, if very large numbers of people are sent to Rwanda, the scheme might have a significant deterrent impact – though it is unclear whether this scenario is plausible.

Similarly, Labour’s plan focuses primarily on enforcement. It is not clear how much impact additional enforcement would have, given the level of enforcement activity that already takes place.

Under either plan, reducing small boat arrivals to zero in the next term of government is extremely unlikely. The Conservatives’ totalising promise to ‘stop the boats’ is thus less attainable than Labour’s vaguer pledge to ‘stop the chaos’. And while both sides are interested in returns agreements, their success would depend on how they are implemented. Past research suggests such agreements do not necessarily lead to more removals.

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