Race and Migration: What Are the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems Promising?

Race has been used as a political football in this election. But what do the parties' manifestos say?
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A protester outside Yarl's Wood migrant detention centre in 2017. Labour has pledged to close this centre down. Photo: Chris Bethell

This election is happening just before Christmas, bringing in the Yule season on a tide of shitty political discourse, dank memes and danker weather. But the election itself is actually very Christmassy.

Labour, the most generous gift givers, have a policy for every day of advent, but your relatives are worried they've gone mad on the credit cards again (even though they're adamant it's under control). The Tories have been good to nan and grandad this year, but they got you a Help to Buy ISA with a fiver in it. The Lib Dems keep bringing up Brexit at dinner and now everyone is shouting.


For race and immigration, the parties have all made an offer, but how will their statements impact our day-to-day lives when the fanfare is over, our recycling bins full of political leaflets and gift wrap?


Racism has hung over this election like a dark cloud. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have promised to condemn and tackle racism and inflammatory rhetoric, naming anti-Semitism and Islamophobia specifically in their race and faith and main manifesto respectively. The Conservatives have not named any specific types of racism, nor committed to their promised internal investigation into Islamophobia, despite pressure from former Conservative chair Baroness Warsi. But they have committed to tackling prejudice, racism and discrimination in general. Whether any of these commitments reassure ethnic minority communities remains to be seen.

The Conservatives have mentioned the Traveller community by name – but not in the name of tackling discrimination against one of the most disadvantaged groups in England. Instead, they have promised to give police new powers to make "intentional trespass a criminal offence" to "tackle unauthorised traveller camps".


Ethnic minority families are more likely to live below the poverty line, less likely to own their own home and more likely to be in low-paid work. In 2015, about one in three children were living in poverty. For Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black children, this went up to half of children. This means decisions about the economy and welfare spending have a big impact.

New research by the Resolution Foundation found that the Lib Dem and Labour manifesto plans would keep child poverty rates stable, but would not reduce it. The Conservatives' plans would make no changes to existing policy, risking a 34 percent child poverty rate increase – the highest in 60 years. This contradicts their manifesto claim that a Conservative government would "continue our efforts through the tax and benefits system to reduce poverty, including child poverty".


More of the same is not good news for ethnic minorities. Research by the Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede Trust found that the past nine years of austerity have hit BME people, particularly women, harder than white men. The poorest black and Asian families lost the most.

Labour has committed to create a new Race Equality Unit and Department for Women and Equalities to make sure policies are impact-assessed and ensure that policies don’t make people worse off because of who they are. Whether they would change their spending plans in response? We’d have to wait and see.


Reliably recurrent, like your annual winter cold, the phrase an "Australian-style points-based immigration system" has made an appearance in the Conservative manifesto. Bandied with abandon by both Labour and Conservative politicians since 2007, no one can tell us what it is or what it means, but everyone knows it tests well with focus groups. The Conservative manifesto says its version will make sure "most people coming into the country will need a clear job offer", but this is not how the "Australian points system" actually works in Australia.

The detail may be lacking, but the rhetoric is strong, hinting through coded language what might be to come. The government already exempts immigration from the remit of the Equality Act 2010 because, even in its current form, it would fail on grounds of race discrimination.


The Conservatives have promised to end freedom of movement for EU citizens, framing it as making the immigration system fairer for EU and non-EU citizens by treating them equally. But making the system more difficult for EU citizens doesn't make the system any better for non-EU citizens, who are more likely to be ethnic minorities. It just makes it worse for both of them. Moves to tighten this system in the name of Empire 2.0 is unlikely to open the UK up to the Global South. It will likely benefit the policy’s namesake Australia and its (mostly white) cousins, New Zealand and Canada. But we’ll see.

The Lib Dems are the only party to commit to keeping freedom of movement for EU citizens – and giving Brits the right to live, work and study in 27 EU countries. Labour is still non-committal and refusing to define our relationship with the EU with labels, much like your (sort-of) ex-boyfriend.


The three major parties have promised to do right by victims of the 2018 Windrush Scandal – British subjects predominantly from the Caribbean, who were wrongly detained, deported and denied their legal rights, as well as being made homeless and losing their jobs. The Conservatives have said they'll continue their support for the Windrush compensation scheme, but have not promised to improve it. The current scheme has been slow, with some victims like Hubert Howard and Richard Stewart having died before receiving payment or an apology from the government. However, their support of a Windrush Memorial is welcome.

The Lib Dems and Labour have both said they'll scrap the hostile environment and end indefinite detention – Britain locks up around 30,000 people with uncertain immigration status every year, with no trial or charge. Labour loses to the Lib Dems when it comes to closing detention centres down. The Lib Dems have promised to get rid of seven out of nine; Labour has only committed to closing two. This goes against the wishes of the party faithful, who voted for an end to all detention centres at the Labour party conference in September.


Both parties would reduce the rip-off prices the Home Office charges to process applications, which particularly affects poorer people and minority communities. Labour would reduce charges for visas and passports, the Lib Dems for registering children as British, which currently costs a whopping £1,012. The Lib Dems would also take the responsibility for immigration away from the scandal-ridden Home Office. This may sound radical, but the Institute for government, a very centrist think-tank, made a similar suggestion earlier this year.


Education, education, education! The Lib Dems would set up a fund "for projects that work in schools to raise the aspirations of ethnic minority children and young people". This is well intentioned, but research by UCL found that ethnic minority students actually have high aspirations already; this isn't what’s holding them back.

In keeping with the theme of their manifesto – a lack of specifics – the Conservatives have said they'll address the "complex reasons why some groups do less well at school", but not said how. They have promised to back headteachers' use of exclusions, though, which black boys are three times more likely to face than white boys. It’s even higher for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students.

Labour announced a review of the curriculum to make sure students learn about racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, the legacy of the Empire and black history, and continue to learn about the Holocaust. Runnymede – the UK's leading independent race equality think-tank, which, full disclosure, I work for – published a report on the importance of teaching empire and migration earlier this year, and it is an area Runnymede has been working on for over a decade, including developing an education resource to help teachers: Our Migration Story.


If we want to combat racism in the long-term, we must start with education. This could be the start of that. Although former Conservative Children's Minister Tim Loughton said last year: "It is incredible that Jeremy Corbyn aspires to be the leader of a country he is apparently so ashamed of," a poll this week by YouGov found that the policy proves popular with the public: 69 percent of people surveyed think it should be taught as part of the National Curriculum.


Labour and the Liberal Democrats have both made strong commitments to reduce the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities throughout the criminal justice system. Labour has gone further and promised to review the Prevent counter-terrorism programme, which has been criticised for alienating the Muslim community and breaching human rights. Both parties have promised ethnicity pay gap reporting and a commitment to Human Rights and equalities legislation. The Conservatives have made no such commitments. But they will increase prison places by 10,000.

Whatever you want for Christmas, vote on the 12th of December (if you can) and hopefully you’ll get what you asked for.

Confused about which party to vote for in the upcoming general election? Check out VICE's handy primer to all the manifesto policies here.