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Labour's little wins are not adding up to victory

There are heaps of voters who blame the governing parties for their problems. Not enough of them are looking to Ed Miliband for solutions.

Labour are making gains, which doesn't mean they are winning. Ed Miliband’s party has nearly 300 more council seats than it had on Thursday morning. So progress. But no-one I have spoken to seriously claims these results put the opposition on a safe trajectory towards a general election triumph.

The reason lots of people voted Ukip will be analysed enough over the next few days – and will no doubt give Labour people ample cause to demand the things they were demanding anyway from the leadership, chiefly "boldness", "clarity" and "radicalism". (I have yet to meet an MP who wishes the leader would be more timid, opaque and incremental.)

In terms of Labour’s vote share, with less than a year before a general election, what matters is that not enough people who hate the main incumbent governing party express that feeling as endorsement of the main opposition party. Plenty think the Tories are a problem; too few think Ed Miliband’s Labour party is the solution.

Labour’s beacon of strength is London, where Ukip were less competitive and where there was plenty of low-hanging Lib Dem fruit to be plucked. There are a couple of other explanations around as to why the capital turned red. It is liberal-left and cosmopolitan by inclination, which is the blend of Labour brew that Miliband serves with ease. Also, crucially, the London Labour party has lots of members – it is a healthy part of the organisation and was well-organised.

Where there are more boots on the ground, more doors are knocked on and more support mobilised. Labour’s Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operation is generally reputed to be in good shape and the capital benefited disproportionately. (Manchester too, by some accounts). But that is less encouraging for Miliband than it might be. It suggests gains made in spite of his performances rather than because of them. Some GOTV is mining core support and mobiliing Clegg-hating refugees who have been on board since 2010. Some is communty activism that indicates a bona fide renaissance of grassroots Labour. In neither case does it reflect a broad shift in the national mood towards a change of government, nor is it a sign that Britain's huge standing army of sceptical and disengaged voters is getting the Miliband message.

A fierce argument is already under way behind the scenes about the focus and organisation of the campaign, much of which is displacement activity to avoid confronting the problem of Miliband’s failure as an evangelist. It is true, as some MPs have grumbled, that Labour’s upper echelons were relaxed for too long about Farage because he was doing such sterling work undermining David Cameron and nibbling away at the Tory vote in key marginals. Yet it is also true, as senior figures in the campaign point out, that Labour would hardly have transformed its position in the past fortnight with an abrupt lurch into foam-flecked and transparently panic-induced cynical anti-immigration rhetoric.

The reason the opposition is febrile is not a fear that it is campaigning with the wrong script. There is plenty of policy and, underpinning that, a plausible analysis of the salient issues in the lives of target voters. There really is a cost if living crisis, so it makes sense for the opposition to talk about it. MPs have various reservations about the emphasis and preferences about what needs to be said more and louder. That is inevitable in any campaign. But those reservations are exaggerated because it is easier to complain about the message than it is to confront the issue of an unconvincing messenger.

Miliband’s lack of campaign mojo was a source great comfort to the Tories in the past week. It was remarkable to see how senior Conservatives sustained a buoyant mood while marching towards a poll where they entirely expected to be butchered. The reason is twofold. First, they know that incumbents can be punished in local and European elections and still win general elections within a year. Second, they are starting to see how the whole Farage phenomenon can work to their advantage – or, rather, how it might be contained.

The key is drawing a sense of equivalence between Ukip as the crazy insurgent opposition and Labour as the flaky old spendthrift opposition, with Cameron as the only grown-up in the middle.

We saw the outline of this argument made by the Chancellor in a speech at the CBI last week. To his right, he depicted the forces of rabid anti-European Farageism, determined to pull up the drawbridge against modern civilsation. To his left, he conjured the spectre of Socialist Milibandism, itching to snuff out Britain’s enterprising spirit under a heap of taxes, price controls and clunky regulations. This configuration will be expanded into a wider general election campaign: Ukip and Labour will be presented as peddlers of different brands of snake oil, while Cameron is the only qualified physician in the house with – it will be claimed – a proven record of healing a crisis-stricken economy.

It has potential as a bid for re-election (although Labour strategists naturally insist it will unravel on contact with the reality of how meagre the rewards from a dodgy millionaire-friendly recovery will be for most people). The big problem for the Tories remains matching a theoretical appeal to the many voters who don’t trust Labour to run the economy onto actual constituencies where the arithmetic stacks up in Cameron’s favour.

In that respect, the latest batch of local election results doesn’t offer much inspiration. Not only are Ukip taking votes from the Tories, they are picking up votes of non-Tories and Labour defectors that the Tories need to recruit. Conservatives have sounded firm on immigration and eager for a European referendum, yet people who are receptive to exactly that message in principle, don’t want to hear it from Cameron. Tory MPs privately admit that on the doorstep no-one believes it. The dilemma remains much as it has been for the duration of this parliament. Cameron badly needs the votes of people who respond to Ukip’s agenda but the more his party sounds like Ukip, the less credible becomes its claim to be the sensible force of centre-hugging sound economic stewardship.

In the last week of the campaign, moderate Tories were glad to see Farage put on the spot about his distaste for living in proximity to foreigners in general and Romanians in particular. Much of the research effort feeding media reports of extremist views and far-right flirtations in Ukip’s ranks has come from CCHQ. Downing Street wants Farage to be contaminated with the whiff of disreputable xenophobia, if not outright racism, but also wants it to be someone other than senior Tories saying it.

This is why it is madness for Conservative back benchers to start once again raising the prospect of a pact with Ukip and why cabinet ministers have thoroughly rejected the notion. The No10 strategy is to make Ukip look like a fringe phenomenon – a pressure valve that releases public anger and frustration in local and European polls but is unsuited to the business of serious government. (Judging by recent precedent, it is a safe assumption that somewhere in Farage’s new haul of councillors will be people with appalling comments and sinister pamphlets lurking in their back catalogues and social media profiles.)

Of course, this is all before we know the results of the European elections. Labour nerves will be calmed if Ukip do not top that poll; and rightwing Tory tempers will be all the more stoked if coming third brings no consoling humiliation for Miliband.

But, from what we have seen so far, the local poll appears to confirm what Labour strategists have been saying for years: the four-party arithmetic and the unresolved problems with the Conservative brand make it hard to see where Cameron finds enough seats to form a majority. And Labour’s pedestrian advance outside the capital appears to confirm the Downing Street  analysis, which is that the country is not turning with any enthusiasm to Ed Miliband – and the opposition look low on ammunition. Cameron may not be making obvious gains; that doesn't mean he isn't winning.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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“It feels like a betrayal”: EU citizens react to Jeremy Corbyn’s migration stance

How do Labour-supporting European migrants in the UK feel about their leader wanting to control EU migration?

“This feels a bit different from the man I had campaigned for,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet. “It felt like he was on the side of the group that matters, regardless of whether they were actually going to make him gain voters or not. He was on the side of what seemed right.”

Blum-Dumontet is a 26-year-old EU citizen who has been in the UK for five years. She works as a researcher for a charity and lives in north-east London’s Walthamstow, where she is the local Labour party’s women’s officer.

She joined Labour just before the 2015 general election, and campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership bid that year. She spent one and a half months that summer involved in his campaign, either phone banking at its headquarters at the Unite union building, or at campaign events, every other evening.

“When he suddenly rose out of nowhere, that was a really inspiring moment,” she recalls. “They were really keen on involving people who had recently arrived, which was good.”

“Aside from the EU, I share all of his views”

Blum-Dumontet voted for Corbyn in both of Labour’s leadership elections, and she joined Momentum as soon as it was set up following Corbyn winning the first one in 2015. But she left the group two months ago.

She is one of the roughly three million EU citizens living in the UK today whose fate is precarious following the EU referendum result. And she doesn’t feel Corbyn is sticking up for her interests.

Over the weekend, the Labour leader gave an interview that has upset some Labour-supporting EU migrants like her.

Corbyn reiterated his opposition to staying in the single market – a longstanding left-wing stance against free market dominance. He added that his immigration policy “would be a managed thing on the basis of the work required” rather than free movement, and, in condemning agencies exploiting migrant workers, he said:

“What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry. You prevent agencies recruiting wholescale workforces like that; you advertise for jobs in the locality first.”

Corbyn also emphasised that Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain – including the right of family reunion – and that there would still be Europeans working here and vice versa. But, for some in his party who hail from Europe, the damage was done.

“I feel like he’s now trying to signal more and more that he’s not on all sides, he’s on the side of people who are just scared of migrants,” says Blum-Dumantet, who will nevertheless stay in the party to try and change the policy. “The idea that he is willing to engage in this whole dog-whistling immigration fear feeling is a bit disturbing.”

She stresses that, “aside from the EU, I share all of his views”, but adds:

“I feel like he’s chosen his socialist utopia – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I’m a socialist as well – over the reality of the concrete lives of three million people. For us, this is not about some abstract ideal, it’s about our lives, whether we can get jobs here, whether we can stay here. And for the sake of his ideal, he’s sacrificing that. That does feel like a betrayal.”

***

Other EU migrants who initially supported Corbyn also feel let down. Sabrina Huck, the London representative of Labour’s youth wing Young Labour, moved here from Germany in February 2014.

Having joined the party that year, she voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election, “particularly because of things like being an internationalist, talking about migrant solidarity”.

Huck, 26, who lives in south London and works in public affairs, began to change her mind about him she discovered his Eurosceptic views. “It’s kind of my fault because I didn’t really do the research properly on him, I guess!” she laughs.

“I understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some jobs”

Now, she feels “disappointed” in Corbyn’s comments about “wholesale importation” of workers. “The way he articulates himself – it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to hear from a Labour leader, particularly somebody who’s been a proud internationalist, proud migrant rights campaigner,” she tells me.

“I think the way he was making his point about wages was laying the blame way too much with workers and not with the bosses, basically.”

Huck notes that Corbyn is against the single market because of his socialist view of the EU as a “capitalist club”, rather than concern about borders. But she feels he’s using “the immigration argument” to sound mainstream:

“I feel like he’s using it as an opportunity to further his own ideological goal of leaving the single market by tying that to an argument that goes down well with the Leave-voting public.”

***

However, other Labour-leaning EU migrants I speak to do not feel Corbyn’s genuine motive is to bring immigration down – and are more understanding of his comments.

“I appreciate and understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some – particularly blue collar or poorer paid – jobs, that is the nature of mass migration,” says a 29-year-old Czech who works for the government (so wishes not to be named), and has lived here since 2014. She believes his comments were made to “appeal to the hard left and Ukip types”, and has left the Labour party. But she adds:

“I can understand how communities suffering through a decade of stagnant wage growth and austerity are looking for a scapegoat, easily found in the form of migrants – particularly in a country where minimum wage and labour protections are so weak legislatively, and so poorly enforced.”

She also is sceptical that a “mass deportation” of EU migrants from Britain is likely to happen. “The optics are too bad, at a minimum,” she says. “It would look too much like the 1930s. What would the government do? Put us all on boats back to Europe?”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively”

“I think they [Labour] are feeling their way around the issue [of Brexit] and are listening for public sentiment,” says Agnes Pinteaux, a Hungarian-born 48-year-old who moved to Britain in 1998. “But reconciling their hardcore Brexit support, those who just hate immigrants, those who want ‘sovereignty’, and those who want Brexit ditched altogether is going to be impossible.”

“I think the debate about the ethics of free movement of labour is a legitimate one, but it has to be rooted in human rights and dignity,” says Anna Chowrow, a 29-year-old third sector financial manager who moved from Poland to Scotland in 2007, adding:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, and I have admiration for his principled approach. [But] I am in disbelief that these comments – akin to ‘British jobs for British workers’ – were made by him. The dehumanising language of ‘importation’ and ‘destruction’ is beyond disappointing.”

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Finding EU citizens in Britain who are entirely sympathetic to Corbyn’s comments is difficult. Forthcoming defenders of his stance are hard to come by, suggesting that it’s a minority view among Europeans living in Britain. But there are some who continue to back him.

“I like Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity. He comes across as genuine and honest, and I agree with most of his ideas. Contrary to the majority of politicians, he’s actually not afraid of coming across as a human being,” says Teresa Ellhotka, 24, who moved to the UK from Austria in 2016 and works in PR.

“His ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively,” she says of Corbyn’s stance on EU migrants. “My mind about Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed drastically as his ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive and I admire that he is dedicated to change but in a human way, and doesn’t suggest fighting fire with fire – as many other politicians, and people, seem to do.”

Ellhotka admits to being “a little surprised, as I did not expect this stance from him at all”, but feels there has been “so much back-and-forth” on the issue that she’s stopped worrying about what politicians say.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly is going to happen anyway.” The only thing, perhaps, that all politicians – and their voters – can agree on.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.