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.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage