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 Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow secretary of state for health. 

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.