Starmer has laid out his plan to tackle asylum. Will it actually work?

<span>Keir Starmer pledged his belief in a functioning, rule-based asylum system, in Dover this week.</span><span>Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images</span>
Keir Starmer pledged his belief in a functioning, rule-based asylum system, in Dover this week.Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Could Keir Starmer “Make Asylum Boring Again”? That would be the ultimate test of success for his claim that he can grip the issue that has caused Rishi Sunak more trouble than any other. Starmer’s message is that he is no less committed to securing the borders and stopping the small boats crossing the Channel, but that achieving this requires a serious plan to tackle smuggling gangs and fix the asylum system in Britain too. So how different is Labour’s plan – and would it work?

Labour’s analysis should be that making asylum work depends on blending control and compassion. The Dover speech was a political exercise in asymmetric triangulation. Robust messages about control were loudly proclaimed. More liberal ideas about a rules-based system could be found, but mostly by reading between the lines.

Starmer did confirm that Labour would scrap the Rwanda scheme. Labour had seemed to wobble in the face of premature Conservative confidence that Rwanda is already working to deter. Ironically, the biggest risk for Sunak’s deterrent argument would come if he finally gets to test it practically. Send the first flights to Rwanda this summer and further arrivals across the Channel will surely outpace any removals 10 times over.

There is a clash of principle over asylum. Labour would process the asylum claims of those who arrived without permission. The Conservatives have now passed several laws vowing they will not. Yet ministers are in denial. Whether or not up to 500 people go to Rwanda does not give the government any plan for the next 50,000 people it still claims it intends to remove. So flagship new duties on the home secretary to refuse these claims for ever have not been given legal force – as the courts would strike that out in all those cases where the government has no realistic alternative. Yet the government has ceased to process asylum cases, reversing last year’s success in clearing the historic backlog.

Starmer is right to deny the charge that Labour’s policy is an “amnesty”, since processing the backlog would see some asylum claims granted and others refused. But he confusingly blurs his own argument with a tit-for-tat labelling of government policy as a “Travelodge amnesty”.

Starmer believes in a functioning, rules-based asylum system. The standstill on making asylum decisions does delay and prevent returns to safer countries. Fewer than one in 10 asylum claims from India are granted, for example, yet asylum seekers who could be returned there safely are now stuck in limbo alongside refugees from Syria and Eritrea, where nine out of 10 claims would succeed once assessed. But it is an unlikely stretch to present restoring a functioning asylum system as a significant deterrent as to whether people make those journeys or not. Nor, indeed, would that be a significant pull factor either, as rising flows amid the current chaos show.

Labour wants to compete on competence, hence its ‘graft, not gimmicks’ slogan

Life-threatening journeys across the Channel should be nobody’s idea of how asylum should work. Labour wants to compete on competence, hence its “graft, not gimmicks” slogan, and focus on inter-agency cooperation. Trying to operate the Rwanda scheme does have enormous opportunity costs, beyond its financial ones, so more energy and capacity could go into doing something more useful. But deepening the policing effort alone is unlikely to be sufficient to restore order to the Channel unless a broader British-French deal could be negotiated alongside it, addressing whose claims should be heard where.

Starmer recognised that logic last autumn. His three-pronged plan involved being tough on smuggling gangs; fixing the asylum system at home; and multilateral cooperation to manage asylum flows. He has since retreated from talking about the crucial third flank of that strategy once political opponents caricatured his willingness to negotiate on routes and returns deals as having EU asylum quotas imposed on Britain. That Conservative attack will continue. The status of Labour’s own plans are less clear.

The Dover speech fits the electoral imperatives of the campaign that Labour wishes to fight this autumn. It cautiously keeps open the constructive policy space for serious asylum reforms too. The question that leaves open is how far that balance can be maintained without developing more confidence in the public’s appetite to hear and understand the whole story.

Sunder Katwala is director of the thinktank British Future