Ed Miliband campaigns before the Rochester and Strood by-election earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The thinking behind Miliband's five-point plan on immigration

The Labour leader aims to position his party as the only one offering "credible" change. 

Labour wants the general election to be defined by living standards and the NHS. But with immigration rising in salience (some polls show voters now regard it as the most important issue facing the county), and David Cameron planning a major speech on the subject before Christmas, it recognises that it needs a response.

Ed Miliband's speech in Rochester and Strood today, ahead of the by-election on 20 November, offered the clearest account yet of how his party would approach this area. In his address to voters he emphasised that "our plan to make this country work for your family also includes addressing immigration" and that he had "changed" Labour's approach. He went on to outline a five-point plan that would be contained in a bill in the party's first Queen's Speech. 

Here are the five points and the thinking behind them. 

1. Stronger border controls

Miliband promised to take action "to ensure that when people cross our borders they are counted - in and out – so we know who is here, who has gone home and who has stayed so we can deal with illegal immigration." At present, as MPs of all parties complain, the Home Office doesn't know  how many foreign citizens come into the country, how many of them leave when their visa runs out, and how many don’t. By convincing the public that it has a grip on illegal immigration, one of their biggest concerns, Labour believes that it would be able to win a fairer hearing for an open migration policy. 

2. Making it illegal to exploit workers

The second pledge from Miliband was to "introduce a law to make it a criminal offence to exploit workers, wherever they come from, with the aim of illegally undercutting wages or conditions here." This is designed to address the problem of employers in industries such as agriculture and construction using migrants to drive down pay and standards for their domestic counterparts. The hope is that this would also have the side-effect of reducing the level of low-skilled migration. 

3. Banning recruitment agencies from hiring only migrants

In a continuation of this approach, Miliband vowed to ban employment agencies from recruiting only from abroad. By focusing on labour market regulation, Labour aims to tackle the root cause of public anxiety over immigration, rather than seeking to appease voters with crude caps and quotas. 

4. Requiring employers to train an apprentice for each skilled migrant

Declaring that "we will make sure opportunities are available for our young people here", Miliband restated his commitment to require large companies to train an apprentice each time they hire a skilled worker from outside the EU. This is aimed at reducing Britain's long-term dependency on skilled immigration and at creating up to 125,000 new apprenticeships over the next parliament.

The scheme would affect those foreign nationals brought in under Tier 2 of the points-based system - those offered a skilled job to fill a gap in the labour market that cannot be filled by a domestic worker. Research by Labour has shown that many recently created apprenticeships have been for low-quality courses, rather than the high-quality, German-style ones that it wants to encourage. 

5. Making public sector workers learn English

Labour recognises that the anxiety around immigration has cultural as well as economic roots. Miliband's pledge to ensure that public sector workers in public-facing roles "have minimum standards of English" is designed to address this. One strategist told me that it reflected a US-style view of the importance of language for integration. 

On the EU, which accounts for 214,000 of the 560,000 immigrants who came to Britain in the year ending March 2014, Miliband promised to seek:

- Longer transitional controls when new countries join the EU.

- Preventing child benefit and child tax credits from being paid to families living abroad.

Doubling the period before migrants would be entitled to benefits.

- Stronger rules to deal with foreign criminals.

He added that "all these changes are about controls, about tackling undercutting of wages by rogue employers and about people earning their entitlements". Labour is also likely to have more to say soon on reasserting the contributory principle in welfare: the requirement that people pay in before they get out. Strategists believe that the less toxic status of immigration in other European countries is partly due to their contribution-based social security systems. 

But as well as saying what he would do, Miliband also made it clear what he wouldn't do. In reference to David Cameron's broken pledge to reduce net migration to "tens of thousands a year" (it currently stands at 243,000), he warned that "false promises on immigration just make people more cynical about politics" and added: "I won’t be part of that. I will not make promises I can’t keep." This means Labour will not mimic Cameron's plan to try and reduce EU immigration by means of an "emergency brake", a limit on National Insurance numbers for foreign workers, or a new points-based system. 

He also reaffirmed his commitment to avoid holding an in/out EU referendum unless further powers are transferred to Brussels. He said: "I will never propose a policy or a course of action which would damage our country. Nigel Farage wants to leave the European Union on which 3 million British jobs and thousands of businesses in our country depend. Those jobs and businesses include many here in Rochester & Strood which has always traded with the world beyond.

"And Nigel Farage is not alone anymore. Now David Cameron is also saying he is ready to leave the European Union and have Britain turn its back on the rest of the world. In doing so he is creating fear and uncertainty for British businesses which may be already losing out on crucial investment because of political games being played with our national interest. I will not be a Prime Minister that puts either those jobs and businesses or our national interest at risk."

Labour aides emphasise that Miliband is not adopting a "Ukip-lite" approach - and they're right on that. The aim is to position the party between the Tories, regarded as promising undeliverable change, and the Lib Dems, regarded as lazily wedded to the status quo. With immigration likely to remain at the top of the agenda for the next few months, that strategy will soon be tested. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.