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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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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