Immigration is back

Underneath the tactical manoeuvring, the differences in this area between Labour and the Tories are

Despite voter concern about immigration falling to its lowest level in nine years, immigration is back as both political box office and political football.

The escalating problem of irregular migration from the Arab spring is reopening old arguments over "burden-sharing" in Europe, which Nick Clegg was dragged into on Tuesday. Back home David Cameron, having gone quiet on immigration over the winter, returned to the issue aggressively during the local elections.

Conservatives have often banged the immigration drum during a campaign, only to put it away once its job is done. But this time Cameron is likely to keep up the focus, taking a risk on a bit more Lib Dem unhappiness, in order to enjoy an ongoing political dividend.

The manner in which sensitive proposals on restricting family and marriage visas were trailed on Monday looks like an early sign of the tactics urged on Cameron by Tim Montgomerie (following Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher) of picking "big, defining fights on popular projects" such as immigration as the best way of avoiding his agenda being defined entirely by the spending cuts.

It also offers an ideal sop to the Conservative right, along with continuing to yoke the immigration cap to welfare reform – two of the Tory right's favourite coalition policies.

Labour, meanwhile, knows it can't avoid immigration for ever, and a bolder approach now could begin to detoxify the issue for it, tackling continued resentment among southern voters over Labour's record. Ed Miliband's wider strategy on the "squeezed middle" and the Blue Labour agenda provide him with new ways of talking about immigration that are more constructive than just saying, "Sorry, we let too many in."

Underneath the tactical manoeuvring, there is actually less polarisation in the two main parties' broad strategy on immigration than in previous years. In the four decades to the 2005 election, Labour was seen as basically pro-immigration, Conservatives basically anti. Since then, both have tried to shed those old images, and are competing to be identified with the centre ground: roughly, pro-immigration-but-less-of-it, a more balanced approach that is now routinely applied to the social and cultural as well as the economic aspects of immigration. Ed Miliband is continuing on these lines, and it must remain Cameron's preferred strategy, too – as well as his best chance of preserving coalition unity.

There are three main battlegrounds in the campaign to win the centre: overall numbers, the economy and culture. On the numbers, both parties have flagship policies with the same basic objective: more quality, less quantity. Labour's version, the points-based system, is more realistic about the nature of migration flows, the workings of the immigration system and the needs of the economy. In contrast, the Tories' cap is crude but easy to explain, and on an issue where trust has disappeared, this has so far proved decisive.

On the economy, Labour needs to win the argument again about immigration's contribution to overall growth and extend that argument to reducing the deficit. The pro-immigration line on the economy had a damaging air of complacency in recent years, but the evidence remains basically sound. The more radical debate is over the role of immigration in the complex dynamic at the lower end of the labour market.

Cameron's argument here is that if we reduce immigration while at the same time making it harder to live on benefits, this will shift large numbers of people from welfare to work. Miliband's argument, though less clearly put, seems to be that if wages and conditions improve, the result will be simultaneously to reduce the demand for low-paid migrants (at present the only ones willing to do some of these jobs) and to shift people from welfare to work, but by making work more attractive, rather than making living on benefits harder. Both arguments present low-skill immigration as a symptom of our real problems – welfare for the Tories, wage stagnation for Labour – rather than the cause.

On the final battleground of culture, the target is the voters identified in the recent Fear and Hope report as neither relaxed about immigration nor implacably opposed to it. For Miliband, the emergence of Blue Labour will help him keep his party's debate focused on this centre ground.

The Conservatives have a headstart here, but this could be undermined by two factors pushing them towards a more polarised position: the neocon approach of Michael Gove and others – evident in the more confrontational passages of Cameron's Munich speech – and the desire to perpetuate anger against Labour by talking up the problems of integration, rather than doing anything to solve them.

On all three battlegrounds – numbers, the economy and culture – narrative will be more important than policy or statistics. The Tories start with a clear advantage, but their narrative may become increasingly frayed by coalition dynamics, the realities of government, and an inability to control their instincts tugging them off to the right. Labour meanwhile has the makings of an alternative story, but it is a long way from being fully fleshed out.

All in all, the debate might be more interesting over the coming year than the cynics think.

Matt Cavanagh is associate director at IPPR.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war