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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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide