Priti Patel, the home secretary, tried to set the election agenda today by claiming net immigration would rise to 840,000 a year if there were a Labour government. Interestingly, she sent Brandon Lewis, a junior minister in the Home Office, out to argue the case rather than doing it herself. 

There could be a reason for this, namely that the number is more or less invented. As it was, Lewis managed to get through his interviews in one piece, but the story failed to dominate the election news agenda anyway, after the publication of terrible NHS figures. 

But immigration is an important subject, and so it is worth setting out the facts about it, and about the two main parties’ policies. 

Net immigration into the UK is currently running at something over 200,000 people a year. This is the difference between the 600,000 a year coming in and nearly 400,000 a year leaving. The net figure rose to above 300,000 a year in 2015 to 2016 but declined after the EU referendum. 

Since 2010, the Conservatives have been committed to getting the net figure down below 100,000 a year, which was the official translation of David Cameron’s pledge to get it down to “the tens of thousands”. That target, which was never close to being met, has been dropped since Theresa May stood down as prime minister. The policy in the Conservative manifesto is not expected to include a numerical target, but an ambition to reduce the net figure.  

Even this unquantified pledge may be hard to achieve, not least because immigration from the rest of the EU has fallen quite sharply since the referendum – this has been partly offset by a continuing rise in immigration from outside the EU. Indeed, for most of recent history, immigration from outside the EU has been higher than from the EU itself – except for that 2015 to 2016 period when EU immigration peaked. (The Office for National Statistics figures are here.) 

So where does the 840,000 figure come from? According to the Tories, it is a “minimal interpretation of Labour’s policy”, but they have given no information about how it is calculated. It assumes that the motion passed by Labour conference in September sought to extend free movement to other countries beyond the EU. But Labour says the phrase “extend free movement rights” in the motion referred to the rights themselves – such as those of family members – rather than extending the principle of free movement to other countries. 

The motion was not carefully worded, and it caused John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, problems at the time, not least because Labour had previously accepted that free movement would end if we left the EU. Not only did the motion change that, but it also said Labour would give nationals of other EU countries the right to vote in general elections. We do not know what policies will actually appear in Labour’s manifesto, expected next week. 

So the Conservatives are engaged in wilful misinterpretation of Labour policy, but they are drawing attention to a genuine difference between the parties. Jeremy Corbyn refuses to say whether he wants net immigration to be higher, lower or the same.  

But how much does immigration matter to voters? A Deltapoll survey carried out last week found that it is regarded as the third most important issue facing the country, behind Brexit and the NHS – named by 28 per cent of respondents (who could select up to three issues). Although the same survey found that only 10 per cent named it as one of the most important issues facing “you and your family”. 

And attitudes to free movement of people between the UK and the EU are not as negative as is often assumed. A poll by Savanta ComRes this week asked people if they support or oppose “keeping freedom of movement when Britain leaves the EU, so that people from any EU country can live and work in the UK, and people in the UK can live and work in any EU country”. This was supported by 56 per cent, opposed by 23 per cent, with 21 per cent saying “neither” or “don’t know”.

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