There must be no right turn on immigration

There is no path to victory for Labour through the thickets of anti-immigrant politics and I am confident that Ed Miliband knows this.

Everyone is still talking about the lessons of Eastleigh. But the worst lesson that any mainstream political party could learn, in the light of the UKIP's surge, is the necessity to move right on immigration. It is true that the issue was often raised on the doorstep. And, since 2010, opinion polls have shown high levels of public concern. But what public policy needs is common sense policies on immigration

Sadly, immigration has served as a proxy for race in the British political narrative for so long, that it is still not possible to totally deracialise it. This is true, even though the would-be immigrants currently causing anxiety are eastern European. And there is a small group of people who use immigrant as a generic term for all kinds of people, like refugees, asylum seekers and third generation families from the British Commonwealth, who are not immigrants at all.

But the experience of the Republican Party in the United States is an object lesson in how fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric can rebound. They lost the 2012 presidential election, not just because legally settled Hispanics voted against them in record numbers. But because other voters of immigrant descent (like the Chinese and those from the Indian sub-continent) also fled the party. They read the relentlessly anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric of the party as being hostile to all immigrants, however settled and respectable.

Effective immigration policies are more challenging to implement than the rhetoric of Nigel Farage suggests. The Tory Home Secretary, Theresa May, boasts about cutting the number of immigrants. But in reality, half the drop is down to students (with calamitous results for our universities), while 30 per cent of the net migration reduction is down to more British people leaving. No wonder the coalition's opinion poll lead on immigration is collapsing.

Anti-immigrant policies can have contrary and embarrassing results. The last Labour government tried to deter asylum seekers by giving them cash vouchers instead of money. But vouchers were widely criticised as both stigmatising and impractical. Nor did they do anything to bring down the numbers of asylum seekers - because these are people compelled to flee by war and economic devastation. So the policy was eventually scrapped. Now the Tories are looking at denying access to the NHS to certain categories of immigrant, asylum seeker and visitor. No one defends health tourism. But doctors and GPs are emphatically not interested in being immigration officers. More importantly, if you drive certain members of the population away from seeking treatment for communicable disease, there is a real danger to public health.

It should not surprise anyone that people whose parents or grandparents were immigrants complain about immigration. Anti-immigrant fervour is actually a proxy for economic discontent and will inevitably rise in a recession. As Ed Miliband has pointed out, immigrants don't cause low wages; unregulated labour markets and predatory employers do. There is no path to victory for the Labour Party in 2015 through the thickets of anti-immigrant politics and I am confident that Ed Miliband knows this. There is certainly a pressing need to sort out the chaos at the UK Border Agency. And I warmly welcome the practical policies that my party is shaping around the real discontents of ordinary people; ranging from building more homes to the principle of a living wage.

A couple walk past eastern European shops in Boston, in Lincolnshire. Photograph: Getty Images.

Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.