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 home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health. 

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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