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Labour is developing the right instincts on immigration

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

Labour leader Ed Miliband
Labour leader Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

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