The shadow cabinet split over Labour's immigration mug reflects a deeper divide

Ed Balls believes a tough message is essential but Chuka Umunna and Sadiq Khan are warier. 

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No piece of Labour merchandise has divided opinion more sharply than the mug pledging "controls on immigration". Diane Abbott described it as "shameful", adding that "the real problem is that immigration controls are one of our five pledges at all". 

When questioned on the subject yesterday, shadow cabinet ministers made little attempt to disguise their distaste. Chuka Umunna said: "I don’t wish to be photographed with any mug at all. I have been really clear about this we have got to have a sensible debate about immigration – that is what Ed has sought to do all along." Asked by the Telegraph whether he would buy one, he replied: "I am not going to be buying any mugs. I am going to be on the campaign trail in all the different parts of our country winning support for Labour. Now I have got to go." Sadiq Khan went even further, warning that the mug's message could be "misconstrued". The shadow justice secretary and likely London mayoral candidate said: "I personally would not buy the mug, I think it can be misconstrued. Let me explain why. What we can’t do is use immigration as a proxy for issues others have used in previous elections... and I’m not suggesting anyone was doing that." Another frontbencher, Shabana Mahmood, told the Daily Politics: "It doesn't sound like a mug that I would be buying". 

By contrast, her boss Ed Balls declared today: "I've not got one, but I ought to buy one and have it in my constituency campaign office". He added: "It's a very important pledge for us to make. We're not going to shut the borders, we aren't going to walk away from Europe. We need skilled people coming to our country, but there's got to be tough controls on immigration and you've got to know that people who come here contribute.

"It's a pledge from us, it's on the mug and I'm hoping after the general election I can do a toast in that mug as we get on and change Britain for the better."

Though this may appear a trivial debate, it reflects a deeper shadow cabinet divide. Balls has long been one of the chief advocates of a "tough" approach to immigration, partly influenced by his experience as MP for Morley and Outwood, which once had the highest BNP membership in the country. When I recently profiled him, one MP noted how often his leaflets featured pledges on this issue. Umunna and Khan, however, are warier of such messaging and have long argued for a stronger response to Ukip. Balls, though, believes there is little to be gained from directly attacking the Farageists and regards the priority as reassuring Labour-leaning voters that the party can be trusted to control immigration (hence his approval for the mug). Umunna and Khan, meanwhile, fear that overly strident rhetoric could alienate the liberal electorate Labour needs to win over in London (where their constituencies lie). 

This is less a difference of policy than one of strategy. Should Labour lose, or even should it win, the debate over which side is right will form a central part of the post-election inquest.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.