Immigration in party manifestos: threat or resource?

At the beginning of this General Election campaign immigration was the 7th important issue for British adults. This confirmed the gradual decline of the issue during the past years from the most important issue facing Britain (June 2016), to the 3rd (June 2017), and the 10th (September 2019). It was clearly not on the main radar this year. Nevertheless, it was frequently invoked by all parties and candidates in relation to the main issues: Brexit and NHS. My analysis draws on critical discourse studies to explore how the manifestos referred to immigration.

Conservatives: “get Brexit done. Unleash Britain’s potential” with “the best and the brightest”

Immigration is a problem to be solved and controlled through a commitment re-enforced by the candidate’s personal guarantee and signature. The imaginary of a catastrophic, fictious scenario is re-enacted: immigration is a threat that requires fixing and taking back control of borders. Our borders. The main narrative of the 2016 EU referendum is heavily instrumentalized to remind of the danger and set the grounds for the populist leader, the saviour, who has the solution: the Australian-style points-based immigration system, an inclusion – exclusion vision legitimized through appeal to competency and skills. Finally, the main promise: attracting the best and the brightest, while there will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down; less of ‘them’ for the protection of ‘us’, ‘our’ NHS and ‘our’ benefits system. This is the Conservative vision of making the immigration system more fair and compassionate.

Labour: “It’s Time for Real Change” with “a humane immigration system”

The Labour vision on immigration is presented as centred on human rights and aimed at meeting the skills and labour shortages as opposed to the hostile environment system attributed to Tories. Furthermore, the Windrush scandal is invoked and powerful imagery is used to illustrate the extent of damage that led to British citizens being deported. Immigrants are considered a positive resource enriching society. The core idea of change is not explicitly mentioned in the Migration section of the manifesto, being replaced by decisive action. The actions are legitimized through a perpetuation strategy of pointing out the failures of current system, attributing the blame to Conservative and Liberal Democrats policies and augmenting the consequences: undermined our economy and public services, encouraged the demonisation of migrants and the use of residents as bargaining chips. The party’s position on Brexit is reflected through a strategy of balancing the outcome of both leave and remain scenarios with the pledge of respecting our values and domestic laws while respecting EU and UK citizens’ rights.

SNP: “Stronger for Scotland”. “Scotland relies on migration for growing our population”

Immigration is explicitly framed as a resource for the growth and development of an independent Scotland, in a firm stand for freedom of movement and against the demonisation of migrants. It is legitimized in opposition to Westminster’s broken policies (including the hostile immigration environment) and more broadly to the current ‘dependency’ that limits the overall development potential of Scotland. Furthermore, the promises have been broken, thus there can only be a radical, transformation solution, justified by the appeal to our right as a country to decide our own future: the break with the status-quo in a mission personally assumed and signed by the candidate Nicola Sturgeon – it’s time to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands.

Liberal Democrats: “Stop Brexit. Build a Brighter Future” with “a compassionate and effective immigration system”

The Lib Dems’ vision on immigration revolves around a diagnostic: Britain’s immigration system is in desperate need of reform. This is supported with statements and evaluations of a current disastrous situation, linked either to key issues (NHS’ impossibility to recruit) or appeals to emotions (separation of families due to visa requirements; people detained indefinitely). The blame is directly attributed to the Conservatives’ hostile environment (illustrated symbolically by the Windrush generation), as well as to the Labour and Conservatives previous Home Secretaries. The party positions itself as having the solution to this crisis, emphasizing their unique offer: the only party with a plan for a fair migration system that works for everyone. Welcoming migrants and restoring confidence in the system are the key pillars of their plan. Migrants are considered a resource for the skills and contribution they bring, therefore the first actions in the plan are Stop Brexit and save EU freedom of movement.

Overall, immigration is a resource for Labour, SNP and Lib Dems that label unanimously the Conservatory system hostile environment and symbolically instrumentalize the Windrush scandal. The SNP campaigned for independence; the Lib Dems claimed a radical reform; Labour’s change was weakened into decisive action. The Conservatives were consistent in re-enforcing their 2016 main narrative and capitalized on the need for direction: uncontrolled immigration is a threat; take back control and get Brexit done. And now, it looks like they will.