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28 March 2015

Labour’s anti-immigrant mug: the worst part is, it isn’t a gaffe

The party is under fire for its latest round of mugs. But the problem is bigger than a bargain-basement bit of crockery.

By Stephen Bush

Labour has come under fire from its own activists after releasing a branded mug that promises “Controls on immigration”. The troublesome cup is being condemned as unspeakably naff at best and outright racist at worst.  The worst part is, it isn’t a gaffe.

A Labour spinner tells ITV News, not unreasonably: “Labour has five election pledges. This is one of the election pledges.” To which the only response is: yes. That’s exactly the problem. Five years after Ed Miliband was elected on a promise to take Britain to the left, and three years after telling the New Statesman that this was a “centre-left moment”, the only one of Labour’s pledges that excites anyone is a pledge to “control immigration”.

The case for Labour’s defence is this: large majorities of the public think that immigration is out of control. Labour’s biggest mistake according to the average voter wasn’t the war in Iraq – it was the party’s failure to manage migration. That’s why, when asked to describe New Labour’s biggest mistakes during that first debate, Miliband settled on immigration. That’s why he promises to “bear down” on immigration, and his party’s latest fundraising wheeze is to sell mugs promising illusory “controls” on migration.

That’s why, privately, Labour strategists are relaxed about a few bruised feelings among lefty activists on Twitter.

Just one teeny-tiny fly in the ointment: it doesn’t seem to be working. Increasingly rancorous language about migrants and benefits has done nothing to secure Labour’s increasingly alarming position in the polls. If anyone can be said to have “won” from the party’s vituperative rhetoric, it is the surging Greens. 

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The big problem for Labour is that the party obviously doesn’t believe what its saying; Miliband looks uncomfortable and unhappy whenever he attacks immigration, and its actual policy – a two-year wait before any new arrival can claim benefits – won’t do anything to turn migrants away.

It’s the promise of work, not the United Kingdom’s less-than-generous welfare system, that attracts newcomers to Britain, and as anyone who has tried to come to Britain in recent years, the United Kingdom already has fairly stringent controls on immigration. My colleague Anoosh recently interviewed Miwa Hirono, a globally-respected academic, who is now being deported as a result of those same laws. And as NS political editor George Eaton has noted, the higher migration figures of recent years are actually a sign of economic success, not failure, on the part of government.

Worse still, the only way that Labour can actually achieve its headline policy – of “controlling” immigration – is to leave the European Union, with all the possible consequences for the British and European economy that would have.

Frankly, Labour has two choices. It can make a brave argument for the benefits of an open economy and the value of migration – as Alex Salmond did in his recent interview with our editor, Jason Cowley – or it can continue to go down the Ukip path of promising ever greater barriers on migration, and even more punitive measures for the people who make it past those barriers.

The trouble with going down Ukip’s path is, eventually, you have to have Ukip’s solution, because if immigration really is as bad as Ed Miliband says it is, the only way is Brexit.