In his speech to a hall packed with business leaders, Keir Starmer came with the message that Labour had changed, hoping to sweep away the years of antipathy between his party under its previous leadership and growth-hungry executives.
But another change in position was clear to see: on immigration, Starmer held up the recruitment of overseas workers as a sticking plaster solution to the problem of significant worker shortages in the UK.
While he said immigration was part of the UK’s “national story” and that his party would never diminish the contribution it made to the economy, it was a markedly different tone from when Starmer was running to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
Speaking on 31 January 2020, the final day of Britain’s membership of the EU, Starmer was emphatic: “We have to make the case for freedom of movement.”
With Brexit in the rear-view mirror but its complications continuing to plague politicians, Starmer is now walking a fine line.
He is reluctant to give any hint he is prepared to turn on the taps and allow thousands of people into the UK, while simultaneously trying to avoid upsetting Labour MPs who are overwhelmingly pro-migration.
This equivocation was perhaps most telling when he resisted being drawn on whether migration should fall or not, instead arguing against setting “arbitrary numbers”.
The vow to wean businesses off their “immigration dependency” left Nigel Farage proclaiming that “Labour are now to the right of the Tories on immigration”.
Meanwhile, Starmer’s hint of potential “movement in our points-based migration system” was taken by Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former co-chief of staff, to be “signalling further liberalisation of an already-too-generous system”.
Allies of the Labour leader said any fall in immigration numbers would be a side-effect of the focus on homegrown skills, for instance by getting more carers to go on to become nurses.
“We can’t just move from skills gap to skills gap, we have to look after our own people,” said one frontbencher.
Starmer supporters say his shifting stance on immigration is a response to significant changes since spring 2020 – post-Brexit and post-pandemic. But it is also true that the public’s view on immigration has changed in a short period of time.
Half of the public feel positively about immigration, up from one-third in 2014, according to research from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The thinktank found that, for the first time ever, most people with an opinion on the matter wanted immigration levels to stay the same or increase.
And far from being the salient topic immigration was in the run-up to the referendum, just 9% of people saw immigration as a top priority on average over the course of 2022 so far, compared with 44% in 2015.
Labour could gain the support of 5% of the public by signalling a more open approach to immigration while repelling 2%, according to the IPPR’s model of voting behaviour focusing on the swing voters most likely to switch parties.
Starmer’s speech was welcomed by business leaders. “He got as close to a standing ovation as it’s possible to get from the CBI,” one business figure said.
Another executive contrasted Rishi Sunak’s “dog-whistle” response to a question on recruiting migrant workers that focused entirely on people-smuggling across the Channel, while praising Starmer for his “more measured” response.
Ultimately, neither Sunak nor Starmer gave the CBI full-throated assurances they would allow the number of workers from overseas being asked for. Both leaders did not rule it out, but have provided themselves plenty of room for flexibility.
Given Starmer has admitted the party may be hamstrung if it inherits a battered and bruised economy after the next election, he is likely to face accusations that his own push for growth would be hampered by an aversion to quick fixes to labour shortages.
Tone also matters as much as substance. And some Labour voters may find it uncomfortable hearing their leader pivot from being a free movement advocate before his election to clamping down on migrants in pursuit of a better life in less than three years.