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How Miliband can take the heat out of the immigration debate

The Labour leader must be truly ambitious on pay and working conditions.

Miliband must avoid being depicted as a soft, metropolitan liberal. Photograph: Getty Images.

Immigration played a key part in Labour’s defeat in 2010, becoming the frame through which many people comprehended and linked together a vortex of economic and social anxieties. Before the election, Ipsos MORI found that just six per cent of those concerned by immigration thought Labour were the best party on the issue. But Labour under Ed Miliband is never going to win a head-to-head contest that focuses narrowly on immigration numbers. Trying to out-flank the Tories to the right would simply lack authenticity and plausibility, and further alienate people from politics.

The Labour leader must also side-step a trap the Tories would like to set, where he gets positioned as a soft, metropolitan liberal. Miliband may be more softly spoken than the tough, no-nonsense home secretaries of the mid New Labour years, but his views on immigration should not be mistaken for permissiveness. His generation have no appetite for a 1980s-style cult of victimhood.

Instead, Miliband is reaching towards a policy for immigration that may include a dose of social liberalism, but also views migration through two other lenses – both of which are key to his worldview more widely: his prioritisation of economic inequality, and an emphasis on strong communities as vehicles for morality, culture and connection. Miliband can talk about people’s immigration concerns but also quickly widen-out the conversation, to take it into terrain where he can push home an advantage, using his egalitarian and communitarian convictions.

The challenge for the left, is to create the conditions in which immigration concerns can subside so that they no longer taint other political debates. In thirteen years of government, Labour learnt that concerns about immigration will not dissipate if you simply ignore the problem. Miliband has already been upfront about immigration in two important ways. First, he has loudly and publicly accepted Labour’s failure to anticipate the huge influx of central and eastern European migrants. Second, he has strongly criticised the coalition for failing on in its own terms, both in relation to policing the UK border and achieving its cap on net migration.

He can now argue (in a way that New Labour globalisers never could) that if migration is not working for the bottom and middle then it is beside the point whether it is good for GDP. The best way of saying that Labour is sticking up for low-income communities is by being truly ambitious on pay and working conditions. Miliband should return to the radicalism of his leadership campaign and embrace a national living wage and also push for sector-wide pay rates in migrant-heavy industries. In short, every job in Britain must be “good enough” for British people to want.

Alongside decent pay and conditions Labour needs a tough message that there will be a zero-tolerance on under-cutting by unscrupulous employers and be ready to pick fights with employers and agencies who recruit migrants first, over and above British unemployed. The party could consider placing new requirements on big business to take more responsibility for their supply chains or raise the prospect of discrimination claims where firms have all-foreign workforces. This would all tie-in well with a ‘tough-love’ message for people who are long-term unemployed; that Labour will guarantee the availability of jobs, but that everyone has a responsibility to accept them.

But Miliband also needs to go beyond the economic and talk about culture and values. He can avoid any talk of imposed assimilation – but he must still emphasise responsibilities and shared values, with respect to personal behaviour and to how people establish themselves in broader communities. When previously in office, Labour pursued this agenda with English language requirements and the beefed up citizenship process but these national rules alone are too abstract and transactional.

Labour needs to think through how to bring to life its instincts about migrants’ rights and responsibilities locally, in the context of place and communities. Miliband should explore the scope for ‘contracts’ – real and implied – between newcomers and the communities they are settling in. This would start with a much more hands-on role for local authorities, who should feel empowered to develop detailed plans in areas of high migration. Ideas might range from encouraging with poor English to take part in family education programmes through to mandatory requirements for newcomers to make (achievable) community contributions before being eligible for social housing.

Of all political issues, migration triggers the greatest insecurities and the most political distrust. Vagueness and good intentions will not do. But if Miliband is able to turn his ethos of responsibility into specifics, he can succeed in taking the heat out of the debate.

The Shape of Things to Come: Labour’s New Thinking is published by the Fabian Society on Wednesday 27 June