The political dangers of Miliband's "new approach" on immigration

By declaring that low-skilled immigration is "too high", Miliband risks entering a war he cannot win.

Ed Miliband has long regarded immigration as one of the issues that Labour mishandled in office. The last government was wrong, he has said, not to impose transitional controls on migration from eastern European and wrong to then casually dismiss people's concerns.

After delivering two speeches on immigration since he became Labour leader, Miliband will tonight devote a party political broadcast to the subject (which you can watch below), with a speech by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper to follow tomorrow. The interventions will inevitably be seen as a response to the party's poor performance in the Eastleigh by-election, where, in the words of one Labour MP, immigration was "the single biggest issue on the doorstep", and as a response to the Tories' political manoeuvring. But I'm told by a Labour source that it has been on the grid for some time. That seems plausible. As will be clear to anyone who has studied Miliband's leadership, he doesn't do knee-jerk policy, he doesn't "lurch". And political parties do not plan and deliver PPBs in just six days.

To a string-laden soundtrack, Miliband begins the broadcast by again stating that Labour got it "wrong" on immigration, a sign that he believes the party needs to rebuild trust on the issue before it can hope to win a fair hearing. He says: "One of the things we didn’t get right was immigration and that’s why I’ve got a new approach.  Millions of people in this country are concerned about immigration and if people are concerned about it, then the Labour Party I lead is going to be talking about it."

He goes on to argue that "low-skill migration has been too high and we need to bring it down", calling for "the maximum transitional controls for new countries coming in from eastern Europe". But rather than promising a crackdown on allegedly benefit-hungry migrants, as the Tories have, he again promises to crackdown on rogue employers who use migrant labour to undercut domestic workers. Miliband refers only to the need for tougher enforcement of the minimum wage but Cooper will supply more detail tomorrow when she announces plans to make it illegal for bosses to house migrants in unsuitable accommodation, such as mobile homes, and to extend action against gangmasters employing illegal migrants in social care, hospitality and construction. 

In the PPB, Miliband also cites the need to improve training for domestic workers, "so that they have a fighting chance of filling the vacancies that exist", and to ban recruitment agencies who only seek to employ people from abroad. 

Miliband's class-based analysis of immigration is a significant improvement on the populist "British jobs for British workers" rhetoric of Gordon Brown. But perhaps inevitably, the broadcast raises more questions than it answers. Having argued that low-skilled migration (as opposed, presumably, to high-skilled immigration) is "too high", how confident is he that the measures Labour is proposing will reduce it? Miliband has rightly rejected the government's focus on "targets" but this decision will prompt some to question his commitment to reducing new arrivals. 

We can also expect the Tories to challenge Miliband to say what action (if any) he would take to restrict migrants' access to the welfare state. Asked earlier this year whether he was willing to consider restricting benefits for EU immigrants, Miliband said: "Of course that's an issue that should be looked at, the length of entitlement to benefits and how quickly people can get them. All of these issues should be on the table." More recently, however, he has accused the government of "windy rhetoric", urging it to  focus instead on tackling rogue employers. As the coalition prepares to announce specific proposals, where does Labour actually stand?

Miliband's approach raises the possibility of a more progressive conversation about immigration. But with his declaration that immigration, or at least one form of it, is "too high", some in Labour fear he has entered into a war that he cannot possibly win. 

Ed Miliband's party political broadcast on immigration will be shown on BBC1 tonight. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser