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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era