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.

Wikipedia.
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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:

 

The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

...is, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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