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1 February 2016

Can Labour manage its immigration divisions?

Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham strike different tones but on policy there is consensus. 

By George Eaton

Jeremy Corbyn’s allies are fond of emphasising that, with the exception of foreign affairs and defence, Labour is more united than often suggested. But there is another issue on which divisions are undisguisable: immigration. They surfaced yesterday when John McDonnell warned that the UK needed to start “preparing” for a world of open borders “by the end of this century”. This prompted a sharp rebuke from Yvette Cooper, the former shadow home secretary and the head of Labour’s refugee task force, who said: “Labour needs to maintain a policy in favour of firm and effective border controls alongside help for refugees. I also disagree with John McDonnell about what will happen in the coming decades. Given the challenges we face, proper border checks are likely to become more important not less in future.”

McDonnell’s allies rightly note that he was predicting a future of open borders, rather than advocating one. But the ensuing row shows the dangers of politicians thinking aloud. McDonnell’s forecast, based on the work of writer Rahila Gupta, was too easily confused with the old Marxist dream of a borderless world. Rather than making predictions about the next century, Labour MPs say they would rather the shadow chancellor restricted his attention to the next election. 

Alongside this episode are the long-running divisions between Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham. The Labour leader is an unambiguous supporter of high immigration, describing it as nothing but “a plus” and last week arguing that Labour had been “too defensive” about the issue. But his shadow home secretary takes the reverse view. As he has often said, he believes Labour has been too relaxed about the downsides of immigration and too neglectful of voters’ concerns. In a piece for yesterday’s Observer, he struck a notably different tone to Corbyn, rebuking those politicians who have “a tendency to talk about EU migration as if it is universally good or universally bad” (“neither is true”). 

Burnham and others such as Michael Dugher, his former campaign manager, believe that Corbyn’s perspective has been shaped by his atypical constituency of Islington North. “Neighbourhoods change all the time,” the Labour leader said last August. “My constituency has people from probably 70 different countries living there, a very large number of languages. People understand the difference of cultures, and I think children growing up in a multicultural society have a very good understanding of the rest of the world.” To which Burnham replied: “I think if you don’t mind me saying I think that’s quite a London perspective on this issue. If we deny there is an issue there we will drive people to Ukip.”

But when Corbyn, Burnham, John McDonnell, Hilary Benn and Alan Johnson met earlier today to discuss the party’s pro-EU campaign (which Johnson is leading) it was the degree of consensus that impressed those present. Burnham, like Corbyn, supported continued free movement, while the Labour leader endorsed the shadow home secretary’s proposal of a “rapid migration fund” to relieve pressure on schools, hospitals and housing in high immigration areas. The pair were also united on the need for greater regulation to prevent employers undercutting domestic wages. 

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It is tone, rather than policy, that is the defining division. But while Corbyn is unlikely to describe immigration in anything other than positive terms, by agreeing to support Burnham’s plans he has tacitly acknowledged that it can have negative consequences. A step forward, the shadow home secretary’s allies believe. On Thursday, Burnham and shadow immigration minister Keir Starmer (who is beginning a three month nationwide tour) will both make interventions on the subject. If their differences with Corbyn cannot be erased, the hope is that they can at least be managed.