Labour wants the general election to be defined by living standards and the NHS. But with immigration rising in salience (some polls show voters now regard it as the most important issue facing the county), and David Cameron planning a major speech on the subject before Christmas, it recognises that it needs a response.
Ed Miliband’s speech in Rochester and Strood today, ahead of the by-election on 20 November, offered the clearest account yet of how his party would approach this area. In his address to voters he emphasised that “our plan to make this country work for your family also includes addressing immigration” and that he had “changed” Labour’s approach. He went on to outline a five-point plan that would be contained in a bill in the party’s first Queen’s Speech.
Here are the five points and the thinking behind them.
1. Stronger border controls
Miliband promised to take action “to ensure that when people cross our borders they are counted – in and out – so we know who is here, who has gone home and who has stayed so we can deal with illegal immigration.” At present, as MPs of all parties complain, the Home Office doesn’t know how many foreign citizens come into the country, how many of them leave when their visa runs out, and how many don’t. By convincing the public that it has a grip on illegal immigration, one of their biggest concerns, Labour believes that it would be able to win a fairer hearing for an open migration policy.
2. Making it illegal to exploit workers
The second pledge from Miliband was to “introduce a law to make it a criminal offence to exploit workers, wherever they come from, with the aim of illegally undercutting wages or conditions here.” This is designed to address the problem of employers in industries such as agriculture and construction using migrants to drive down pay and standards for their domestic counterparts. The hope is that this would also have the side-effect of reducing the level of low-skilled migration.
3. Banning recruitment agencies from hiring only migrants
In a continuation of this approach, Miliband vowed to ban employment agencies from recruiting only from abroad. By focusing on labour market regulation, Labour aims to tackle the root cause of public anxiety over immigration, rather than seeking to appease voters with crude caps and quotas.
4. Requiring employers to train an apprentice for each skilled migrant
Declaring that “we will make sure opportunities are available for our young people here”, Miliband restated his commitment to require large companies to train an apprentice each time they hire a skilled worker from outside the EU. This is aimed at reducing Britain’s long-term dependency on skilled immigration and at creating up to 125,000 new apprenticeships over the next parliament.
The scheme would affect those foreign nationals brought in under Tier 2 of the points-based system – those offered a skilled job to fill a gap in the labour market that cannot be filled by a domestic worker. Research by Labour has shown that many recently created apprenticeships have been for low-quality courses, rather than the high-quality, German-style ones that it wants to encourage.
5. Making public sector workers learn English
Labour recognises that the anxiety around immigration has cultural as well as economic roots. Miliband’s pledge to ensure that public sector workers in public-facing roles “have minimum standards of English” is designed to address this. One strategist told me that it reflected a US-style view of the importance of language for integration.
On the EU, which accounts for 214,000 of the 560,000 immigrants who came to Britain in the year ending March 2014, Miliband promised to seek:
– Longer transitional controls when new countries join the EU.
– Preventing child benefit and child tax credits from being paid to families living abroad.
– Doubling the period before migrants would be entitled to benefits.
– Stronger rules to deal with foreign criminals.
He added that “all these changes are about controls, about tackling undercutting of wages by rogue employers and about people earning their entitlements”. Labour is also likely to have more to say soon on reasserting the contributory principle in welfare: the requirement that people pay in before they get out. Strategists believe that the less toxic status of immigration in other European countries is partly due to their contribution-based social security systems.
But as well as saying what he would do, Miliband also made it clear what he wouldn’t do. In reference to David Cameron’s broken pledge to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands a year” (it currently stands at 243,000), he warned that “false promises on immigration just make people more cynical about politics” and added: “I won’t be part of that. I will not make promises I can’t keep.” This means Labour will not mimic Cameron’s plan to try and reduce EU immigration by means of an “emergency brake”, a limit on National Insurance numbers for foreign workers, or a new points-based system.
He also reaffirmed his commitment to avoid holding an in/out EU referendum unless further powers are transferred to Brussels. He said: “I will never propose a policy or a course of action which would damage our country. Nigel Farage wants to leave the European Union on which 3 million British jobs and thousands of businesses in our country depend. Those jobs and businesses include many here in Rochester & Strood which has always traded with the world beyond.
“And Nigel Farage is not alone anymore. Now David Cameron is also saying he is ready to leave the European Union and have Britain turn its back on the rest of the world. In doing so he is creating fear and uncertainty for British businesses which may be already losing out on crucial investment because of political games being played with our national interest. I will not be a Prime Minister that puts either those jobs and businesses or our national interest at risk.”
Labour aides emphasise that Miliband is not adopting a “Ukip-lite” approach – and they’re right on that. The aim is to position the party between the Tories, regarded as promising undeliverable change, and the Lib Dems, regarded as lazily wedded to the status quo. With immigration likely to remain at the top of the agenda for the next few months, that strategy will soon be tested.