Yvette Cooper's speech on immigration: full text

The shadow home secretary says Labour will not enter an "arms race of rhetoric on immigration" and promises "a fair, controlled system".

Thank you to IPPR for welcoming us today.

For too long immigration has been one of those difficult subjects politicians don’t talk about, and the public worry about.

Yet it is too important to our economy, our society and our future not to discuss.

Some say for Labour to discuss immigration is to move to the right. Not so.

In fact the free market liberal right wing approach has often been to promote wide open borders – in the interests of free markets, trade, and flexible, cheap labour.

Meanwhile the conservative right wing approach is to close the borders completely, with all outsiders kept out.

Neither of those right wing extremes will ever work for Britain, or ever be accepted by Labour.

We know we need a sensible balanced approach.

It is because immigration is important that it needs to be properly controlled.

It is because immigration needs public support that the impact must be properly managed so it is fair for all.

And yes, we need a serious debate about how to get that right.

Britain has benefited over many centuries from the amazing contributions of immigrants welcomed to our shores.

New ideas, new talents and hard work from abroad have helped build our biggest companies, sustain our NHS, keep our public transport moving, win us Nobel prizes and expand our science base.

Britain has always been a safe haven for people fleeing violence and persecution – and must continue to be so.

Last summer the entire nation gathered behind Team GB. A third of the team had parents or grandparents who came from abroad to make Britain their home.

And we celebrated the strong, diverse and outward looking culture we showed off to the world.

For the future, immigration is likely to be even more important.

Our top companies, our universities, and even our football teams and the Bank of England are competing in a global marketplace – dependent on recruiting the best international talent.

People are trading and travelling more than ever before. When my grandfather moved from Yorkshire to Lancashire in the 40s it would have been seen as a radical thing to do. Yet when his youngest grandson got married recently in America relatives gathered from three different continents to celebrate.

Millions of British jobs dependent on imports and exports, immigration has helped boost jobs and growth, and we know our children need to know about the world beyond our borders.

So we know that Britain cannot – and must not – pull up the drawbridge on the outside world.

But we also know that immigration needs to work for all. And right now most people in Britain think it doesn’t.


Mass migration can create stresses and strains – making it harder for people to put down roots or build communities, and when resources are tight creating economic and political tensions too.

Closing the door doesn’t work. But nor does having no controls at all.

The pace and scale of immigration matter.

Controls matter, so does the kind of migration and the rules to keep things fair.

The impact of immigration matters.

Immigration has to be managed so it works in the interests of Britain, and in the interests of working people.

Under Ed Miliband’s leadership we’ve been holding events across the country - listening and talking about immigration in Britain. North and South, city and town. First and second generation migrants as well as families who have been in Britain for generations.

Along with Shadow Immigration Minister Chris Bryant, I’ve heard from people worried about whether their children will find jobs and whether they can compete with new arrivals from abroad.

We’ve heard from people who have seen rapid change in their communities worried they don’t know their neighbours any more.

And we’ve also heard from people worried about jobs being lost at the local university because fewer international students have come.

We’ve heard from people with many concerns about the way the immigration system works – and we need to talk about those problems.

As Ed Miliband has said we know Labour got some things wrong on immigration in Government.

We did tackle many of the serious problems in the asylum system we inherited after 1997. We also brought in stronger border checks.

But we should have been quicker to bring in the Australian style points based system.

We should have kept transitional controls for Eastern Europe.

And we should have looked more at the impact, and been ready to talk about problems.

So we know that needs to change.

We will support the Government where it introduces sensible policies. And we will point out where they are getting things wrong.

But we won’t enter an arms race of rhetoric on immigration – and we hope the Prime Minister won’t either.

That’s not honest, or good for Britain.

Instead we need a serious debate about the benefits and challenges from immigration, and about the practical measures needed to tackle the problems.

That is why I want to focus on three key areas where we can set out practical reforms today;

- On tackling the unequal impact of immigration
- On controls and limits
- On proper enforcement and effectiveness

And then I want to talk about the most complex challenge – reforms that are needed to make sure the immigration system works in a fairer way for European migration too.

But let me first say something more about the importance of managing immigration for our communities, and the important speech Ed Miliband made on this before Christmas.

Making immigration work for everyone means making sure we can come together as a country whatever our backgrounds, whatever our family history, race or religion, just as we did through the Olympics.

It means making sure that people can come together in local communities, building common bonds, sharing British values, not living segregated lives.

As Ed made clear that doesn’t mean assimilation – we are proud of Britain’s diversity. But it does mean greater integration.

Locally that means fostering and building a shared community, where people don’t just tolerate each other, but build friendships, families and businesses.

The modern history of Britain is the triumph of friendships across cultures and ethnicities over racism and prejudice. There are still challenges of course, but it is that sense of friendship and community that we believe we must continue to build.

But none of that is possible if we don’t speak a common language.

That is why we support stronger language requirements on people coming to this country and stronger requirements to learn and speak English if people are here. Better to teach people English than focus only on translation or interpreters. And we believe there should be stronger English language requirements on people who want to work in public services too.

And it is why we believe in developing an integration strategy – rooted in a sense of “shared citizenship,” and in communities, housing and the workplace.

It’s also why we expect people who are welcomed into Britain to work hard, obey the law, contribute to our economy and society. That’s what most people coming to this country want to do.

And it is right to have clear rules and responsibilities to make sure that happens as I will set out later on.

And it is because we believe in developing a One Nation approach to immigration around shared values that we also need to look at the impact of immigration, the pace of change and how we ensure the rules are followed.

So we need action to tackle the unequal impact of immigration on Britain.

Overall migration has created jobs, increased the growth in our economy and filled vacancies where skills were short.

But some of those in low paid work have seen downward pressure on wages.

We’ve heard cases of some employers getting round the minimum wage by providing over priced, over crowded accommodation to migrant workers. We’ve heard of migrant workers left to sleep in barns, or crammed into caravans.

Or factories that only recruit through agencies, and agencies that only use foreign staff, so local workers find it hard to get in.

It’s not fair on migrant workers who are being exploited because of their desperation to find work. It’s not fair on other employers who are playing by the rules. And it’s not fair on local people who want a job with fair pay so they can support their families too.

Yet the Government is doing nothing to tackle this abuse, or deliver a fairer deal.

There hasn’t been a single prosecution for failing to pay the minimum wage in the last two years.

Even when employers are caught abusing the system the penalties are too often pathetic.

Last month 15 UK dairy farms were found guilty of using illegal labourers hired through gangmasters. The workers were housed in disgraceful accommodation previously used for animals, and paid £400-£500 less than the minimum wage each month.

Yet for that abuse, they were fined only £300 each – less than they saved in a month on every illegal worker they exploited.

Many of the companies actively recruiting from abroad also fail to provide training or apprenticeships here at home.

So we need to act.

Ed Miliband has already called for action against agencies that use only foreign workers, and stronger enforcement of the minimum wage.

And we should go further.

• We need stronger penalties for abuse. We should start by doubling the fines for breaching the minimum wage or the rules under Gangmasters legislation.

• Enforcement must be stronger too. Local councils should be given the power to take enforcement action over the minimum wage and we should look at extending the Gangmasters Licencing Authority to other sectors where abuse is taking place.

• We need to stop rogue landlords exploiting migrant workers with overcrowded, overpriced accommodation that is also bad for local communities and leads to undercutting of local workers too – the Government should sign up now to our proposals for a register for private sector landlords.

• We should also change the Minimum Wage regulations to stop the employers providing overcrowded accommodation and offsetting it against workers pay.

And of course we should also be targeting those sectors with high levels of foreign recruitment for training and apprenticeships so local workers – particularly the young unemployed - can get jobs.

Before the last election we had in place programmes like Care First to help young people get training and jobs in the care sector and other sectors with high levels of vacancies. But those programmes have been cut and nothing put in their place. We need serious targeted action with Job Centres, colleges, training bodies and employers to train up local people to get those jobs, and a responsibility on the unemployed to take them up.

But it isn’t enough to address the impact.

The pace of immigration matters for communities and the labour market. And the kinds of immigration matter too.

So controls and limits are important.

Labour has recognised we should have had transitional controls in place for Eastern Europe.

And we were slow to bring in the Australian style points based system.

As a result immigration – and particularly low skilled immigration – was too high, and it is right to bring it down.

Where the Government is introducing sensible controls we support them, but their approach is too simplistic and they risk focussing on the wrong things.

Our points based system started to reduce low skilled migration from outside Europe.

We supported the Coalition decision to stop high skilled workers coming to do low skilled jobs.

And we supported action to close bogus colleges and stop people pretending to be students but seeking low skilled work instead.

We recognise the cap on tier 2 workers itself has not so far caused the problems some businesses feared, though the implementation of it and the long delays in getting visas have caused difficulties. For example we know that it now takes twice as long for businesses to get work visas – increasing the costs they face.

So we will continue to monitor it and hear the views from business on what amendments are needed for example to speed things up. But as Ed Miliband said last year, if the evidence shows it would not cause problems for our economy, we will maintain the cap.

But the Government’s overall approach to targets is too simplistic – and changes are needed.

David Cameron promised to reduce “net migration” to the tens of thousands by the election, and that has become the top priority of the Home Office now.

Yet the drop in net migration so far is not what it seems.

Astonishingly two thirds of the drop in net migration is actually British citizens.

And it seems a large proportion of the rest is students.

Net migration has gone down by 72,000 since the election.

Yet that includes a 27,000 increase in Brits leaving the country.

And a 20,000 drop in the number of Brits coming back home.

Meanwhile student immigration dropped by 38,000.

Yet foreign students bring in investment and jobs to our country – a total of £8bn a year.

And few think the answer to Britain’s immigration challenges is to persuade more Brits to go away.

“Net migration” measures the difference between certain categories of immigration and emigration and the way they have set the target means they are often focussing on the wrong things.

Everything that is included in the “net migration” measure is treated as the same, while the Government tries to bring it down.

Everything excluded from the “net migration” measure is being ignored – even if it causes serious problems.

For example legitimate University students are included in the target even though they bring billions into Britain – and those are being squeezed

Yet student visitor visas aren’t included – and growing abuse in that category is being ignored.

Highly skilled global experts and investors are included – so the Home Office has no interest in sorting the visa delays that prevent them from coming.

Yet illegal immigration isn’t included – and all the evidence shows the Home Office is not taking it seriously and the problem is getting worse.
There needs to be a mature recognition that there are different kinds of immigration – immigration that works and immigration that doesn’t both for the immigrant and the country.

And immigration controls need to reflect that. We need stronger action against illegal immigration, and stronger checks on short term student visitor visas but legitimate higher education students should not be targeted in Government action to bring immigration down.

Ministers should be working with Universities and local councils to make sure we can sustain more high skilled graduate students from fast growing economies like China and Brazil – bringing in the international investment that supports jobs and subsidises British students, and bringing the international cultural and trading contacts that will serve us well for the longterm.

But stronger checks are needed on shorter term student visitor visas.

There is no minimum level of course for the student and it does not need to lead to a qualification. There are no academic requirements for getting the visa. Applicants don’t have to provide evidence of funds to support themselves nor proof of study at a college. No one checks if they study. No one checks if they overstay. And these visas have gone up by 30,000 a year since the election.

The Borders Inspector has already warned this route is open to abuse for those who are coming not to study but for low skilled work instead.

Yet because “student visitors” aren’t included in the “net migration” target, the Home Office doesn’t appear to care.

We also need much stronger action to cut illegal immigration as a priority.

The system isn’t working at the moment and it has got significantly worse since the election:

• The number of people refused entry has dropped by 50%
• The number of people absconding through Heathrow passport control has trebled – the number caught has halved
• The backlog in finding failed asylum seekers has gone up
• The number of illegal immigrants deported has gone down
• The number of foreign prisoners removed has gone down
• The number of businesses fined for employing illegal workers has gone down
• 150,000 reports of potential bogus students not followed up by UKBA
• Finger print checks on illegal migrants caught at Calais have been stopped
• Basic security checks on missing asylum seekers dropped
• Cuts in security in the Bordersgate debacle – we still don’t know how many illegal immigrants got through
• UKBA has little idea who is still in the country and who has left
• And the e-borders technology to count people in and out at the borders has been delayed

This is a growing catalogue of failure.

Yet illegal immigration is deeply damaging.

It’s not fair on the people brought here illegally, often promised a life which in reality does not exist.

People are sold a dream only to exist in destitution. illegal migration has seen increasing numbers of gangs trafficking young girls into sexual slavery.

For legitimate migrants who have followed all the rules illegal migration is unfair.

And for the citizens of our country, illegal immigration is what angers them most – the idea that people are abusing the system.

So we need much stronger action from Government to bring illegal immigration down. And here’s a series of practical steps the Government could take.

We need faster, stronger enforcement when illegal immigrants are found in workplaces, colleges and transport hubs.

UKBA inspections should target employers and colleges unannounced.

UKBA compliance officers who inspect premises should be given the power of arrest so they can act swiftly when they discover problems – rather than just promising to return with a warranted officer tomorrow and giving people time to abscond.

UKBA officers should have proper training in identifying and responding to women and children victims of child trafficking who need help.

The Government should be developing proper exit checks so people can be counted in and out at the border.

We need a system where UKBA can track who has entered or left the country, with swifter action when people overstay.

And whilst illegal immigration has got easier, legitimate legal migration has become subject to damaging delays.

Businesses report long delays trying to get visas for international appointments. The wait for a tier 2 work visa is up from 36 days to 56 days. The delays for high value investors and entrepreneurs have gone up from 30 days to 86 days.

Families report long delays getting visitor visas for relatives to come to weddings (or funerals) they end up missing. And even though a high proportion of initial decisions are wrong for bureaucratic reasons, the Government is now trying to abolish appeals.

Couples report being forced to live apart even while their baby is born because of the scale of delays in spouse visas.

Asylum seekers are waiting for years for a decision and the delays are increasing – leaving genuine refugees in limbo and making it harder to send failed cases home.

Tourists report long delays either at our passport checks – or trying to get visitor visas in the first place. Chinese tourists who bring in major investment are giving up and visiting other European countries instead.

The system just isn’t working and it is getting worse.

The Home Office doesn’t seem to see this as a priority. Yet the damage to Britain, and the costs to the economy and the tax payer are considerable.

A proper action plan is needed to tackle these delays and failings, based on the practical recommendations from the Borders Inspectorate reports.

All these things can make a practical difference;

- stronger action to tackle the unfair impact, and build common bonds
- strong, fair controls, reflecting different kinds of immigration
- Proper enforcement and a more effective system

But we have to recognise that managing migration is more challenging when it comes to Europe.

And reforms are needed here too.

One million British people are living and working in other EU countries. And just over 2 million nationals of other EU countries are estimated to be living here.

Most are working hard and contributing to our economy and society. They pay their taxes and support the jobs that keep British citizens in work too.

But European migration is also the issue that creates greatest public concern right now because there are fewer controls, and because so much has changed so quickly. The pace of migration from the A8 countries was much faster than we expected.

People are worrying about the impact of Bulgarian and Romanian migration from next January.

There are five important lessons we should learn from A8 migration – and changes we should make before next year.

For a start it is right to have full transitional controls. It makes a difference if all countries are doing the same things too - since other countries lifted their transitional controls on the A8 countries, the level of migration into Britain has fallen by 35%.

Labour will ensure maximum transitional controls for any future countries joining the EU.

Second, we need tighter enforcement of labour market rules to avoid exploitation and prevent undercutting.

That includes all the changes we are arguing for to toughen up enforcement of the minimum wage, crackdown on rogue landlords, and abuse by recruitment Agencies.

Third, they should be targeting those sectors who are already recruiting low skilled workers from abroad and insisting they do more to train local staff – especially young people.

They should set up targeted training programmes with these sectors this year to help the young unemployed into those jobs.

Fourth, Ministers should take sensible action around the benefit system and services.

Most people who come to Britain from Europe work hard and contribute more in taxes than they use in public services or claim in benefits. But the system needs to be seen to be fair. Giving people the right to work in other countries is not about people travelling and getting support from other countries if they don’t plan to contribute.

So the Government is right to look at this area. But so far they have come up with no specific practical proposals and are engaged in a frenzy of briefing and rhetoric instead.

The habitual residence test works in the vast majority of cases, but one practical change within existing European rules would be to add a “presence test” to the habitual residence test to make it clear and to clarify for everyone that Jobseekers Allowance cannot be claimed within a few days or weeks, and that people will be expected to be in the country for some time or to contribute before they get something back. That could be done swiftly.

We should also start discussions with Europe over reforming the long standing provision stretching back many decades which requires family benefits to be paid even if the family members live abroad. It is currently set out in EC Regulation 883/2004.

This causes significant unfairness. If someone moves from Newcastle to London for work and leaves their children behind they cannot claim child tax credit. But if someone moves to London leaving their children in Paris or Prague instead they can claim child tax credit and send it home. That’s not fair. Most people feel the support we provide for children growing up as part of our country shouldn’t be paid to those living in a different country instead. The Government should be building an alliance across Europe to get that regulation changed.

Fifth, we need proper co-operation with other European countries to make sure that migration is not abused. The new Schengen Information System will share information on migrants travelling within the EU. It will guarantee the authenticity of documents and help identify illegal residents. But so far the Home Secretary is refusing to sign up.

Instead, this Government is trying to opt out of all police and crime cooperation in the EU. That would mean no data sharing, no coordinated action on serious and organised crime, and no use of the European Arrest Warrant – potentially making the UK a haven for other EU member states’ organised criminals.

Each of these things could be started now. And should be.

But we also need to argue for longer term reforms of the EU.

Some on the Tory right simply want us to withdraw from Europe and pull up the drawbridge on European migration too.

But the consequences for British jobs and investment would be huge. British citizens are among the most likely in Europe to take advantage of the freedom to travel, trade and work across borders. An estimated one million live elsewhere in Europe. Only Poland and Italy have more of their citizens currently living and working abroad.

However reforms are needed.

Allowing citizens of member states to work anywhere in Europe has been part of the single market since it started.

However, the framework that surrounds that right to work was drawn up for a smaller, more homogenous Europe and is now out of date.

Douglas Alexander has already proposed that we should look again at a different approach to migration and transitional controls for future countries joining the EU.

We should look again at the framework to make sure workers are not disadvantaged or exploited as a result of migration. We should be looking again at strengthening the way things like the Agency Workers Directive and the Posted Workers Directive work. But opting out of the Social Chapter as the Tories want to do would make things much worse.

We should also be arguing for reform to make sure countries’ individual tax and benefit systems are not unfairly used.

Requiring countries to treat new migrants exactly the same as long standing residents create a risk that member states simply cut family support, housing or services for all citizens in order to avoid attracting too many migrant workers. That can’t be good for anyone. So Europe should look again at the benefit rules and residence requirements that are in place.

Pulling out of Europe altogether – as the Tory right want - would be bad for jobs and growth.

Pulling out of European co-operation on the Social Chapter, crime, policing and police and immigration data – as David Cameron wants - would make European migration problems worse.

Instead we should be working within Europe to get the sensible reforms we need to make migration fair for all.

Britain needs properly managed migration. We need:

- A stronger integration policy

- A fair system of controls and limits

- To recognise different kinds of migration with stronger action against illegal immigration and a more effective system for the migration we need

- Stronger action to stop exploitation and undercutting in the labour market

- Short term and long term action on European migration for a fairer system

As Ed Miliband has said a One Nation immigration policy needs to work for all.

That means an honest and open debate.

It means admitting where we got things wrong and changing.

It means supporting the Government where they get things right, but calling them out when they get it badly wrong.

It means recognising that diversity makes Britain stronger.

It means no rhetorical arms race, just sensible and practical proposals that can make the system better, stronger and fairer for the future.

It is because immigration is so important for Britain’s future that we need a fair, controlled system that people can support.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper delivered her speech on immigration at the IPPR this morning. Photograph: Getty Images.

Yvette Cooper was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2009 to 2010, and is chair of the Changing Work Centre, set-up by the Fabian Society and Community Union.

Getty Images.
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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 


The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.


On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”


Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.