We were expecting a big clampdown on immigrants when Labour launched its much-anticipated immigration policy yesterday. In the end, it's somewhat milder and more sophisticated than we had been led to expect.

"A touch too xenophobic?" - that was the teasing rhetorical question posed to the Labour Party yesterday on Twitter by Winston Peters, who appeared to be delighted with Andrew Little's immigration policy announcement. Of course, he was referring to the fact that his party has borne this label for years for its long-running anti-immigration campaigns, and Peters was clearly basking in the satisfaction of a major party joining his crusade.

And just to make it crystal clear, Peters also tweeted, "Congratulations @nzlabour for putting New Zealand First for a change." You can see other social media reaction - mostly of a more negative persuasion in my blog post, Top tweets on Labour's new immigration policy.
Labour's Goldilocks solution to its immigration quandary

The politics of immigration is a fraught issue for the Labour Party. On the one hand, the issue has the potential to be exploited for winning over voters who are unhappy with the growth in immigrant numbers - especially when connected with other problems like housing affordability, infrastructure inadequacies, and employment. But the party is also highly sensitive to claims that it's being opportunistic, unprincipled, or even racist in clamping down on immigration. Both supporters and opponents have been quick to call out the party for any perceived "dog-whistling" on the issue.

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That's why Labour's latest immigration announcement is actually milder and more sophisticated than might have originally been expected. In fact, the best label it's been given is that it's "a 'Goldilocks' policy: not too hot and not too cold" - see Bernard Hickey's column, Labour's fine line on migration.

Hickey says that "Labour's migration policy is trying to land somewhere in the middle between New Zealand First's plan to slash migration by 85 percent and the Government's tweaks to the status quo." This column points out that Labour's "plan largely avoids slashing migration in a way that would hurt the highest value parts of the economy and alienating core Labour supporters who worry a sharp turn into New Zealand First territory would see their party tarred with the same brush as New Zealand First." And Hickey also points to the large amount of business support that Labour has drawn for the new policy.

Today's Herald editorial also highlights Labour's attempt to find balance: "The Labour Party will be hoping the target it announced yesterday is drastic enough to win votes at the election in September but not so drastic that it would bring the economy's growth to a shuddering halt" - see: Labour's immigration cuts could be too drastic.

For the most in-depth verdict on Labour's policy, see economist Michael Reddell's blog post, Two sides of the same coin. Reddell, who is an enthusiast for a much bigger clampdown on immigration numbers, believes Labour's policy is a move in the right direction, but really only "a modest step that ignores the big picture". He suggests Labour's tweaking on this issue, isn't that different to the Government's, and that ultimately Labour's changes won't make a big difference to net immigration numbers: "What determines the medium-term contribution of immigration policy to population growth is the residence programme, which aims to give out around 45000 residence approvals each year. The government cut that target a little last year. Labour's policy doesn't even mention it."

Expectations of a bigger cut unmet

The Labour Party has been described as "putting its toe in the water" on cuts to immigration numbers for some time now, and earlier in the year campaigned on some rather larger reductions - see Patrick Gower's earlier report: Andrew Little's big call to cut 50,000 immigrants.

Of course, now Labour is talking of a much lower target of cutting 20,000 to 30,000 a year. So why has the party suddenly reduced their target so significantly? Perhaps it's because they simply couldn't find a way of cutting the numbers without having a severely negative impact on the economy and society, to say nothing of the Labour's need to bring in additional workers to make its KiwiBuild policy work.

For excellent analysis of the problems faced by Labour is finding larger cuts, see Lloyd Burr's earlier articles: Which immigrants will Labour ban?, and Labour's KiwiBuild immigration pickle.

So, in the end, Labour hasn't followed New Zealand First right down the anti-immigration policy path. And therefore, the critiques that were being made of Labour - such as Mike Hosking's Little's immigration 'breather' puts our economy in danger - are less likely to resonate.

Labour pulls back from the race debate

Labour has been burnt before by allegations of racism. In particular, its so-called Chinese-sounding names campaign backfired terribly. This seems to have led Grant Robertson to recently declare that the immigration debate won't be about race: "Anyone who makes it about immigrants, or indeed about their race... must be called out for what they are doing as being wrong and against the values of Labour and of New Zealanders."

And plenty of commentators have warned Labour to take care on the issue. Alison Mau said - just prior to the party's latest announcement - that "Immigration is an uncomfortable space for Labour; it's made a dog's breakfast of it in the past", and she asked the question: "This time around, can Little finesse an immigration debate that sticks to the policy and avoids the racism?" - see: Our politicians are chucking a Zippo on the immigration wood pile - watch as the whole place burns down.

The tensions for Labour over immigration are explained a bit more by Liam Dann: "It is difficult for Labour because the politics are polarising. Labour wants power, it sees a rich vein of discontent but in the current topsy-turvy political environment, it has to make careful choices. Retaining a traditional, optimistic liberal view leans towards free and open borders. That now puts them on the side of the neo-liberal globalists - not a fashionable place for the centre-left these days. But campaigning to radically slash immigrant numbers by unspecified amounts puts them in the camp of angry nationalists like Winston Peters, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. That's not a somewhere Labour voters who stood against South African apartheid and nuclear ship visits are likely to feel comfortable" - see: Let's lead the world on immigration debate.

Nonetheless, there are accusations today of race baiting - see Craig McCulloch's 'Pandering': Rival MPs criticise Labour immigration plan. Amongst other party leaders, Act leader David Seymour is reported saying that it's a sad day when "the major opposition party starts beating the race drum".

But Tracy Watkins thinks that Labour has managed to avoid this ethnicity quagmire, and says that "Little's Kiwis-first immigration policy" has "hit the mark" - see: The Government's on the wrong side of immigration debate.

Perhaps the larger problem might be that Labour's policy - although milder than expected - could still be seen to legitimise a nastier clampdown on immigrants. This is a point made in an earlier article by Keith Ng - see: An ugly great can of Winston: the inescapable result of Labour's immigration push.

Here's Ng's main point: "Immigration has traction as an issue because Labour made it an issue. And Winston can climb out further than he usually does because Labour has already climbed half way. Labour seems to think that it can open a can of worms, and when the worms start crawling out, it's not their fault - it's the worms'. Maybe this would be true if Labour had painstakingly avoided fuelling xenophobia in their discussion of immigration. But they haven't. They've done the exact opposite."

The Foreign student education sector

A big part of the success of Labour's immigration policy is due to its concentration on the immigration element of the foreign tertiary student sector. This will resonate with voters much more than focusing on incoming residents.

And already Labour is getting a lot of support for this focus - see, for example, Simon Collins' 'They don't really come here to get educated' - Indian student, and Barry Soper's Labour directing its energy at foreign students.

And some leftwing bloggers are also supportive - see Martyn Bradbury's Labour cauterises the foreign student rort.

But the education sector is understandably less impressed with the new policy. For their critique of it, see Matthew Hutching's Immigration policy is not meeting skills shortage needs - Andrew Little, and Mei Heron's Labour's immigration policy could ruin colleges - industry.

Finally, although Labour's immigration policy is less restrictive than it might have been, there will still be plenty of party supporters who are troubled by the path that Labour is going down. And for one of the most interesting and insightful defences of immigration, see Yael Shochat's Andrew Little is a regular at my restaurant. Here's what I'd like to say to him about immigration.