Ed Miliband campaigns before the Rochester and Strood by-election on October 23, 2014 in Chatham. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Miliband paints immigration as the problem - it won't help him

The Labour leader should not acquiesce in the framing of immigration as a negative force. 

Today's PMQs saw Ed Miliband attack David Cameron on the traditionally Tory territory of the European Arrest Warrant and immigration. On the former, aware that up to 100 Conservative MPs are prepared to vote against opting back into the EAW, Miliband demanded to know when a vote would be held on a "vital tool that has helped to bring murderers, rapists and paedophiles to justice".

After attributing Cameron's delay to the Rochester and Strood by-election on 20 November (where the Tories stand to lose to Ukip defector Mark Reckless), he mischievously offered to use Labour's opposition day next week. In response, the PM sprung a surprise declaring that "There's only one problem with his second question. Which is we are going to have a vote, we're going to have it before the Rochester by-election. His questions have just collapsed." The logic, it would appear, is to get the rebellion out of the way before the likely defeat to Ukip, freeing Cameron to focus on unifying his party after the contest. Miliband shot back: "All I can say is I look forward to us walking through the lobby together to vote for the European Arrest Warrant, two parties working together in the national interest. Or maybe, Mr Speaker, given his backbenchers, one and a half parties working together in the national interest."

On immigration, Miliband derided Cameron for his failure to meet his 2010 pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands" a year and challenged him to reveal the level at which it now stands (243,000). The PM refused to do so, instead noting that net migration was down by a quarter from its peak under Labour and demanding that Miliband apologise for the last government's failure to impose transitional controls on eastern european citizens and the "search parties" that were sent out to look for extra migrants. 

An unruffled Miliband kept prodding away, declaring "Why doesn’t he just own up? He broke his promise" and noting that Cameron had said in 2010: "If we don't deliver our side of the bargain, vote us out in five years' time." One could justify Miliband's line of questioning as an attempt to hold the PM accountable for a shattered pledge; the problem for Labour is that anyone listening to him would have got the impression that it was a bad thing Cameron had missed his target. In fact, the reverse is true. Britain's economy and society are unambiguously better off for net migration having remained well above "tens of thousands" a year. It is for this reason, among others, that Labour has avoided making a similar commitment to reduce immigration - it's just too fearful to say so. 

As a progressive, Miliband should be alive to the dangers of "immigration" becoming a permanent pejorative. If newcomers are framed as the problem, it is Ukip, not Labour, that will look like the solution. But on the evidence of today's session, he is far too willing to accept - and even encourage - this trajectory. "Why doesn't he just admit it? On immigration, he has failed," Miliband declared in closing. Perhaps, but he should ask himself if he would really be happy with "success".

Meanwhile, away from the Commons, Nigel Farage contentedly chalks up another victory. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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