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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 domestic and global politics.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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