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Theory: Yvette Cooper is stuck in a stable time loop

The chair of the Commons home affairs select committee believes that we haven't been talking about immigration enough. 

I’m worried about Yvette Cooper. Is she stuck in a stable time loop? Is she desperately trying to escape it, banging on the walls of a bubble in the Web of Time, frantically trying to get a message to the outside world to send help, and quickly?

Or maybe she’s suffering from anteretrograde amnesia, unable to form new memories.

I just ask because Cooper is in the news today calling for “a debate” on immigration, saying that “there just wasn’t much debate about it; it was one of those things that people just thought was a bit too difficult to talk about”.

Really? She seems to be talking about the accession of 10 countries to the European Union, most of them from Eastern Europe, and bringing with them a boom in migration into Britain. Except that cannot possibly be right, because I distinctly recall Tony Blair giving a speech about immigration, rather a long one, in Dover in 2005.  That’s right; perhaps worrying that the speech wouldn’t be sufficiently on the nose in its own right, they did it quite literally by the white cliffs of Dover.

Still, Tony Blair hasn’t been leader of the Labour party for a decade now. Perhaps she means under his successor, Gordon Brown. But wait, that cannot be right either, because in his first speech to Labour party conference as leader he promised “British jobs for British workers” and when he kicked off his re-election campaign he did so with a speech about, you guessed it, immigration.

Maybe she means after that? Well, Andy Burnham made talking about immigration a central plank of his campaign for the Labour leadership, not once but twice. Still, he didn’t win, and perhaps Ed Miliband didn’t ever talk about immigration, apart from when he engraved the promise to have “controls” on immigration on an eight foot stone and brought a nifty series of mugs on that same theme.

If he really did sit mute for five years as leader, that seems a pretty damning verdict on him, and particularly his shadow home secretary. I can’t remember who that was. I think it rhymed with “Trooper”.

Then of course, Andy Burnham ran for the leadership again and once again immigration was a central theme: he had a whole spiel about some guy he met who had no friends at work because everyone else spoke Polish. That was in 2015. I seem to recall that Yvette Cooper ran for the Labour leadership, and went so far as to talk about immigration, suggesting that Labour had been too “squeamish” to discuss the issue.

At least I think that’s what happened. I’m finding it hard to tell with these Labour leadership campaigns. They blur into a fungible mess: basically, Twitter gets very angry and then Jeremy Corbyn wins.

And if I’m not mistaken, literally days before a referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union, about half of the Labour party was suddenly seized by a desire to talk about the need to “reform” free movement. As doing this was probably the least helpful intervention imaginable, I find it hard to believe that politicians in general, and Labour politicians in particular, have a problem with talking about immigration.

It seems to me that Britain’s problem is not a deficit of debates about immigration, but a surplus. It feels as if, actually, we’re pretty clear what people think about immigration. About a quarter of the country thinks that immigration is a good thing and three-quarters are varying degrees of hostile to it.

I really don’t think what we need from our politicians is another “debate” about immigration. What we need is a policy that isn’t inhumane towards people seeking to come here, that sustains our economic model, keeps our universities world-leading, and can achieve public support.

My suspicion is that Cooper knows this too, but because she doesn’t know what that system would look like, she’s just going to the use the word “debate” again.

Unless she really is stuck in a time loop.  

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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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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