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Diane Abbott has shown she wants to change Labour’s conversation about immigration

But will the party’s Brexit conundrums let her?

At a press conference in Kings College London this morning, Diane Abbott fired a starting gun for what may be remembered as the left’s fightback against a harsher border regime. In her first major speech on immigration since the election – attended, tellingly, by a host of human rights organisations and migrant rights campaigners as well as the press – the Shadow Home Secretary struck a tone of defiance against the prevailing anti-immigration tide in Labour and wider British politics.

At the 2017 snap election, Labour ran on an unapologetically radical platform, and inspired millions of voters with a programme of social housing, public ownership and higher wages. Immigration was the exception. Here, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who has been a consistent advocate for migrants’ rights, went to the electorate with a manifesto that promised to end free movement with Europe, and even to restrict access to public funds for immigrants. This sudden triangulation was part of Labour’s “change the subject strategy on Brexit, a move which ultimately proved successful.

In pure policy terms, Abbott’s announcements do not go much further than the 2017 manifesto in terms of humanising Britain’s immigration and asylum systems. Labour has already promised to end indefinite detention and to scrap the net migration target, for instance. There were some additional policies today – such as the right for children to keep their parents in the country if they have been granted the right to stay, and vice versa. Abbott also committed to giving EU nationals currently in the UK their full current rights in a post-Brexit settlement, including to new family unions; and to ending charter flight deportation.   

But the really important thing about this morning’s speech was its tone and trajectory. Abbott slammed the idea, which can still be heard in some parts of the trade union movement as well as from the Right, that immigration drives down wages. Globalisation, predatory employers, and the weakening of the trade union movement were to blame for falling rates of pay, and government cuts for the undermining of public services – not immigrants. “Of course”, she said “there is pressure on schools, on the NHS and on housing from a growing population. But these are problems associated with [population] growth, which should be met with investment.”

This morning’s announcements took place, as was pointed out, 50 years on from Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood speech. “We must go back,” Abbott said in response to one question, “to before the 1962 Immigration Act, and talk about immigrants as people”. Abbott is articulating a home truth for the left – uttered in sharp contrast to those wanting to make “sensible” concessions on migration in the wake of Brexit – that the debate on immigration is, more often than not, a proxy for spoken and unspoken racism. In the year after the Brexit vote, hate crime surged by 23 per cent – much of it against non-white British people.

Abbott is setting out, in her own words, “to change the conversation” about migration – and is bringing to the fore an alternative narrative, which, even with Corbyn at the helm of the Labour Party, has been largely confined to the activist left and migrants’ rights campaigners. Firstly, she said, governments cannot seriously limit the flow of people across borders. Secondly, the “push” factors that force people to move almost always outweigh the “pull” factors from their destination country. When you recognise these two very basic facts, being “tough on immigration” does not make sense.

Just how much of this alternative narrative might transmute into policy is not yet clear. There is no doubt that Abbott’s intentions are to fundamentally and irreversibly shift the immigration debate, and that she could be the most progressive Home Secretary in British history. She does not just slam Theresa May’s “hostile environment policy – this morning she also briefly criticised Labour’s record in government, which restricted immigration “not always in the most humane way, or the most sensible way”.

The terrible irony of Labour’s current position is that Abbott, perhaps the most radical MP ever to be given the Home Affairs brief, could end up implementing the biggest expansion in border controls in living memory. Ending free movement with Europe would amount to just that, however anyone tries to dress it up, and free movement remains the pivotal issue in Labour’s internal debate. On it hinges not only Labour’s immigration policy, but the clarity of its overall narrative. If the Party gives credence to the idea that migrants are to blame for falling living standards, it will lose out in the long run.

Like most figures on the left of the party, Abbott has been an outspoken supporter of free movement for years. But just as Corbyn needs political space to push radical policy on the economy or tuition fees, Diane Abbott will need pressure from the grassroots of the party if she is to transform the immigration debate. In that effort, everyone in Labour has a part to play.

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.