Labour is developing the right instincts on immigration

Miliband’s mea culpa is first step to genuinely progressive position.

The simple fact of the Labour leader tackling the issue of immigration head on in a speech to IPPR yesterday is an important step. The widespread perception that the whole topic is somehow taboo is corrosive, and feeds into a narrative (enthusiastically promoted by the likes of Migration Watch) that immigration is some kind of elite conspiracy imposed on the British people. In that context, it is essential that Ed Miliband and his colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet are stating their case, listening to public concerns and trying to establish a constructive debate – one without either prejudice or ‘no go areas’. This speech, following his recent intervention on national identity and Englishness, is a welcome move in that direction.

Labour is now striking the right tone in discussing its record on immigration – recognising that mistakes were made, that change happened too fast in some communities, and that there was a serious failure of politics in not securing public consent for policy. This is essential if the party is going to get a hearing on the issue in future.  But more importantly, this speech made the right connections with Labour’s economic record.  By situating immigration squarely in  this wider debate, Ed Miliband was recognising a much bigger problem when he accepted that Labour had been ‘dazzled by globalisation’, and had paid too little attention to the impacts of the UK’s economic model (of which immigration has been part) on the most vulnerable workers and communities.

For a while, it seemed that the ‘Blue Labour’ project had foundered on the rocks of immigration policy, but this speech showed both that the influence of Blue Labour thinking remains strong (that Ed Miliband made his first major speech on immigration so soon after appointing Jon Cruddas to lead the Labour policy review is no coincidence), and that the Blue Labour position on immigration is much more nuanced than has often been suggested. In fact, the kind of agenda that Ed Miliband set out, which focused on the need to protect vulnerable workers and communities, is one in which UK-born people and migrants should have common cause.  Better enforcement of the minimum wage should reassure UK workers that their wages won’t be undercut, but it would also protect vulnerable migrant workers - the London Citizens campaign for the Living Wage is a good example of this kind of solidarity working in practice.

But most importantly, this speech represents a new attempt by Labour to define a genuinely progressive position on immigration. From a policy point of view, let alone a political point of view, this is a difficult trick to pull off – migration is an issue where the key question from a progressive perspective is not ‘are there benefits?’, but ‘who benefits?’ Necessarily, that means engaging with some real trade offs between different objectives (would we accept a lower rate of economic growth in order to make communities more cohesive?) and between groups (what costs are we prepared to impose on business in order to protect the most vulnerable workers?). It also means looking well beyond the narrow confines of ‘immigration policy’ to consider how migration fits with our economy, public services, communities and our sense of identity – there is no single ‘big idea’ that will cut the Gordian knot of immigration policy (as the Coalition are finding with respect to their much-vaunted net migration target), but rather a set of inter-related changes across a wide range of policy areas that will make migration work better for the UK.

This speech did not by any means set out a comprehensive progressive immigration policy. Nor was it the U-turn on immigration policy that much of the media is suggesting, although the ‘mea culpa' for parts of Labour’s record was important, and it was part of a significant change of direction on economic policy. Not all of the policies set out in the speech will be effective in practice, and those of us who recognise the benefits that migration has brought, and will bring, to the UK may regret that it is politically necessary to pre-judge questions like migration after further EU accession. In short, there is still plenty of work for think tanks like IPPR to do in developing a set of migration policies for the UK that would deliver on progressive values.

But the speech does suggest that the Labour Party is developing the right instincts on immigration, and has realised that it needs a better narrative as well as better policies. If Ed Miliband can resist the temptation to always simply be ‘tougher’ than the Conservatives (a temptation that is no doubt made easier to resist by the continued failure of the government to make progress towards its net migration target), and can situate immigration in the context of the wide economic and social concerns of the British people, he might just be able to change the debate. That is something that everyone with an interest in this issue, including migrant communities and their advocates, should support.

Sarah Mulley is Associate Director at IPPR


Labour leader Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Mulley is associate director at IPPR.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.