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19 November 2014updated 22 Jul 2021 6:07am

Is Labour on the brink of an immigration arms race?

As the Labour party promises 1,000 new border guards, and more benefits curbs for migrants, is it entering a race to “toughen” up on EU migrants?

By Anoosh Chakelian

This week, the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper made a speech about immigration. She accused the Tories and Ukip of being in an “arms race of rhetoric” on the subject.

However, her speech suggested that Labour itself isn’t far from entering this contest. She called for fingerprinting of illegal immigrants, 1,000 new border control guards, and a requirement to speak English.

These proposals come alongside shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves’ idea to outdo the Conservatives and deny EU migrants unemployment benefits for two years following their arrival. This is in spite of “benefits tourism” being a complete myth, as I covered earlier this month.

These strategies do little to reach the heart of this country’s so-called immigration problem. Specifically, difficulties with housing shortages, low wages, and a damagingly flexible labour market, as well as anxieties about other cash-strapped public services, are the “immigration problem”. And many in the Labour party and beyond know this. It is, however, a far less simple message to discuss these structural failings on the doorstep than to find someone – in this case, new EU migrants – to blame.

And Labour figures now seem to be joining in this game. They’re not exactly new players either. Reeves has long been attempting to do one up on David Cameron regarding welfare for immigrants, but so far such a direction hasn’t made its way into the party’s key narrative on immigration.

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But getting “tough” using speeches such as Cooper’s actually confuses the party’s narrative rather than strengthens it. The Conservatives claim that we can never trust Labour on immigration because it was at its height under the last Labour government, of which Ed Miliband was a part. And on the other hand, the liberal left sees the party employing dog-whistle politics and cynical tactics to counter the Ukip threat.

It is the same on a personal level in the party. One despairing shadow frontbench aide tells me that the debate within the party is completely polarised. Party insiders questioning Labour’s direction on immigration “are viewed as a metropolitan elitist who looks like you don’t listen to people, or like Gordon Brown and his ‘bigoted woman’”, they explain, noticing many in the party have suddenly taken up “Blue Labour” credentials. “It’s a shit situation. When the main party of the left is arguing on this ground, you know it’s losing,” they tell me.

Labour’s new plan to “talk about” immigration will not only cause rifts in the party, but will fail to help it electorally. The key example is the Rochester and Strood by-election tomorrow. “We should be doing much better there than we are, to be honest,” one insider tells me. “There’s a feeling that when we lost it [the Medway seat post-boundary change] in 2010, we washed our hands of it and walked away, which is a sign of the party’s bigger problem really.”

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And it doesn’t look like this hasty, last-minute and rather crass bid to enter the immigration arms race will solve either the party’s bigger or smaller problems any time soon.