Enough with the apologies. Week after week, senior Labour figures queue up to express regret over the party’s record on immigration. Ed Miliband thinks “low-skill migration has been too high and we need to bring it down”. Jon Cruddas, Labour’s policy review co-ordinator, claims the party “got things wrong” on immigration. The former foreign secretary Jack Straw believes opening the UK’s borders to eastern European migrants was a “spectacular mistake” that he “deeply regrets”.
Give it a rest, folks. For a start, the mea culpas are unnecessary. Migrants from new EU member countries helped boost growth and wages; a report in 2013 from University College London concluded that immigrants to the UK since 2000 had made a “substantial” contribution to the public finances.
Second, these rolling apologies don’t work. Immigration, as the former Labour frontbencher Diane Abbott tells me, “is not terrain we can win on”. She points out that since Miliband became party leader in 2010 he has delivered two set-piece speeches on the subject, as well as putting out a party political broadcast on immigration saying Labour was “wrong when we dismissed people’s concerns”. Yet Labour’s poor poll rating on the issue has barely budged.
There is, however, a more crucial point: if Miliband and his pals are bent on apologising for their record on immigration, there are better places to start. Why, for instance, haven’t we had an apology for the practice of giving vouchers instead of cash benefits to asylum-seekers? Britain’s first black trade union leader, Bill Morris, accused the Blair government of “giving life to the racists” with the use of vouchers, coupled with the inflammatory language about “bogus” asylum-seekers “flooding” the country. “The mood music is playing a hostile tune for black Britons,” he said in 2000.
Why not express regret or remorse for the pernicious rhetoric around immigration and asylum during the New Labour years? Remember David Blunkett channelling Margaret Thatcher in 2002 and accusing the children of asylum-seekers of “swamping” our schools? Remember Gordon Brown demanding “British jobs for British workers” in 2007? It was left to David Cameron to point out that Brown had “borrowed” his slogan from the BNP and the National Front. Why not say sorry for that, Ed?
Then there is child detention, perhaps the most obscene domestic legacy of the New Labour era, rightly described as “state-sponsored cruelty” by the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. In 2001 the Labour government started detaining children and families who were subject to immigration controls in the same way as single adults. By 2009, more than a thousand foreign-born children were in detention. The average age of the kids detained was five; most of them, according to a study by the charity Medical Justice, were harmed psychologically, their symptoms ranging from loss of bowel control to heightened anxiety.
It required a Conservative-led government, in 2010, to curb the detention of children. Labour’s frontbenchers should hang their heads in shame.
Then there is the party’s record since the general election. As on welfare, the Tories set the agenda on immigration and Her Majesty’s opposition then meekly operates within it. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has claimed the government “is right to look at” so-called benefit tourism – despite Department for Work and Pensions figures showing that workers born abroad are significantly less likely to claim benefits than their UK-born counterparts. The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, has blamed the failure of poor white boys in school on uncontrolled immigration from eastern Europe – despite Department for Education figures suggesting the reverse is true. Echoing Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” mantra, the Labour frontbencher Chris Bryant has said he would like British receptionists in British hotels.
Is Miliband planning on disowning any of these “interventions”? Is he willing to admit he got it wrong on Phil Woolas, the former immigration minister who engaged in BNP-style scare tactics during the 2010 election campaign in Oldham East and Saddleworth – including emails circulated by his aides saying “if we don’t get the white vote angry [about Muslims], he’s gone”. Thankfully, the odious Woolas was stripped of his seat by a special court, but not before Miliband had appointed him as . . . a shadow immigration minister. Where’s the remorse, Ed?
The Labour leader, it seems, is willing to apologise only for being too soft on immigration and immigrants, not for being too tough. Nervous party strategists believe there is no other option. Yet the truth is that, as with welfare, Labour cannot win a Dutch auction on immigration; just as Miliband warned Cameron that the PM couldn’t “out-Farage Farage”, he needs to accept that there is no point trying to out-Cameron Cameron, or even out-IDS IDS, on eastern Europeans, benefit tourism, migration caps and the rest. To try to do so, to indulge in the gutter politics of the so-called immigration debate, whose parameters are set by the Tory populist-in-chief Lynton Crosby and his outriders in the right-wing press, is madness. It only “reinforces the lies” being told about immigration, says a frustrated Abbott.
Miliband, the son of immigrants, needs to reassess his approach to tackling this toxic issue. A strategy based on self-flagellation and populist gestures is politically suicidal and morally untenable. It has to stop.