Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna at the Policy Network Conference at the Science Museum on July 3, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The shadow cabinet split over Labour's immigration mug reflects a deeper divide

Ed Balls believes a tough message is essential but Chuka Umunna and Sadiq Khan are warier. 

No piece of Labour merchandise has divided opinion more sharply than the mug pledging "controls on immigration". Diane Abbott described it as "shameful", adding that "the real problem is that immigration controls are one of our five pledges at all". 

When questioned on the subject yesterday, shadow cabinet ministers made little attempt to disguise their distaste. Chuka Umunna said: "I don’t wish to be photographed with any mug at all. I have been really clear about this we have got to have a sensible debate about immigration – that is what Ed has sought to do all along." Asked by the Telegraph whether he would buy one, he replied: "I am not going to be buying any mugs. I am going to be on the campaign trail in all the different parts of our country winning support for Labour. Now I have got to go." Sadiq Khan went even further, warning that the mug's message could be "misconstrued". The shadow justice secretary and likely London mayoral candidate said: "I personally would not buy the mug, I think it can be misconstrued. Let me explain why. What we can’t do is use immigration as a proxy for issues others have used in previous elections... and I’m not suggesting anyone was doing that." Another frontbencher, Shabana Mahmood, told the Daily Politics: "It doesn't sound like a mug that I would be buying". 

By contrast, her boss Ed Balls declared today: "I've not got one, but I ought to buy one and have it in my constituency campaign office". He added: "It's a very important pledge for us to make. We're not going to shut the borders, we aren't going to walk away from Europe. We need skilled people coming to our country, but there's got to be tough controls on immigration and you've got to know that people who come here contribute.

"It's a pledge from us, it's on the mug and I'm hoping after the general election I can do a toast in that mug as we get on and change Britain for the better."

Though this may appear a trivial debate, it reflects a deeper shadow cabinet divide. Balls has long been one of the chief advocates of a "tough" approach to immigration, partly influenced by his experience as MP for Morley and Outwood, which once had the highest BNP membership in the country. When I recently profiled him, one MP noted how often his leaflets featured pledges on this issue. Umunna and Khan, however, are warier of such messaging and have long argued for a stronger response to Ukip. Balls, though, believes there is little to be gained from directly attacking the Farageists and regards the priority as reassuring Labour-leaning voters that the party can be trusted to control immigration (hence his approval for the mug). Umunna and Khan, meanwhile, fear that overly strident rhetoric could alienate the liberal electorate Labour needs to win over in London (where their constituencies lie). 

This is less a difference of policy than one of strategy. Should Labour lose, or even should it win, the debate over which side is right will form a central part of the post-election inquest.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.