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.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war