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Jeremy Corbyn's immigration policy isn't a muddle, but it is a mess

Labour risks being stranded in no-man's land. 

Has Jeremy Corbyn really changed his policy on immigration three times in one day? The short answer is “no”. Here’s what really happened.

The Labour leader’s team started by briefing extracts of his speech in which he said that Labour was “not wedded” to the free movement of people in Europe on a point of principle.

There then followed a series of interviews in which Corbyn said that the level of migration in the United Kingdom was not too high and that the party would be willing to concede the free movement of people in order to secure a better deal.

He ended the day with his speech, in which he declared that "Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out".

Labour’s line on immigration is actually very clear. Corbyn is saying that the Labour party doesn’t particularly care about the right of EU citizens to move freely within the EU area but is prepared to accept it if that’s the cost of a good standard of access to the single market.  

What the leadership is trying to do is at once appeal to people who want immigration to go down without taking the economic hit that a hard Brexit – the only way to avoid the free movement of people – would represent.

There are some big risks with this line. The first and most obvious is it will widely be reported as nonsense, as few people will understand what the line is. But the bigger risk is that it increases Labour’s weakness on the Brexit issue.

It’s clear what the Conservatives and Ukip are offering on Brexit and immigration: they want it under British control and are willing to take the economic pain of bringing that about. And it’s clear what the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are offering: jobs come first, with the Greens making a more explicitly pro-migrant case, the Liberal Democrats a more pro-immigration case. (Think of it like this: the Liberal pitch is to voters concerned that hitting immigration will lose them their job or make their house drop in value, the Green pitch is to voters who support immigration as a good in of itself.)

It’s not clear which of those voters is better served by putting a tick in a Labour box. The party’s usual reply is “only we can win an election”. Unless Labour can trigger a revival of its fortunes in Scotland it needs to win Kensington and Chingford to win a majority, neither of which have been Labour-held at any point in their history and both of which have Conservative majorities in excess of 6,000. As neither the polls nor, more importantly, actual elections, indicate either will happen any time soon, why not vote for the Liberals or the Greens?

All of which means that Labour’s halfway-house position on immigration in particular and Brexit in general risks leaving them as the party of nobody, the middle-of-the-road option. And we know what happens to people in the middle of the road: they get run down.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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