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Theory: Yvette Cooper is stuck in a stable time loop

The chair of the Commons home affairs select committee believes that we haven't been talking about immigration enough. 

I’m worried about Yvette Cooper. Is she stuck in a stable time loop? Is she desperately trying to escape it, banging on the walls of a bubble in the Web of Time, frantically trying to get a message to the outside world to send help, and quickly?

Or maybe she’s suffering from anteretrograde amnesia, unable to form new memories.

I just ask because Cooper is in the news today calling for “a debate” on immigration, saying that “there just wasn’t much debate about it; it was one of those things that people just thought was a bit too difficult to talk about”.

Really? She seems to be talking about the accession of ten countries to the European Union, most of them from Eastern Europe, and bringing with them a boom in migration into Britain. Except that cannot possibly be right, because I distinctly recall Tony Blair giving a speech about immigration, rather a long one, in Dover in 2005. That’s right; perhaps worrying that the speech wouldn’t be sufficiently on the nose in its own right, they did it quite literally by the white cliffs of Dover.

Still, Tony Blair hasn’t been leader of the Labour Party for a decade now. Perhaps she means under his successor, Gordon Brown. But wait, that cannot be right either, because in his first speech to Labour party conference as leader he promised “British jobs for British workers” and when he kicked off his re-election campaign he did so with a speech about, you guessed it, immigration.

Maybe she means after that? Well, Andy Burnham made talking about immigration a central plank of his campaign for the Labour leadership, not once but twice. Still, he didn’t win, and perhaps Ed Miliband didn’t ever talk about immigration, apart from when he engraved the promise to have “controls” on immigration on an eight-foot stone and brought a nifty series of mugs on that same theme.

If he really did sit mute for five years as leader, that seems a pretty damning verdict on him, and particularly his shadow home secretary. I can’t remember who that was. I think it rhymed with “Trooper”.

Then of course, Andy Burnham ran for the leadership again and once again immigration was a central theme: he had a whole spiel about some guy he met who had no friends at work because everyone else spoke Polish. That was in 2015. I seem to recall that Yvette Cooper ran for the Labour leadership, and went so far as to talk about immigration, suggesting that Labour had been too “squeamish” to discuss the issue.

At least I think that’s what happened. I’m finding it hard to tell with these Labour leadership campaigns. They blur into a fungible mess: basically, Twitter gets very angry and then Jeremy Corbyn wins.

And if I’m not mistaken, literally days before a referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union, about half of the Labour Party was suddenly seized by a desire to talk about the need to “reform” free movement. As doing this was probably the least helpful intervention imaginable, I find it hard to believe that politicians in general, and Labour politicians in particular, have a problem with talking about immigration.

It seems to me that Britain’s problem is not a deficit of debates about immigration, but a surplus. It feels as if, actually, we’re pretty clear what people think about immigration. About a quarter of the country thinks that immigration is a good thing and three-quarters are varying degrees of hostile to it.

I really don’t think what we need from our politicians is another “debate” about immigration. What we need is a policy that isn’t inhumane towards people seeking to come here, that sustains our economic model, keeps our universities world-leading, and can achieve public support.

My suspicion is that Cooper knows this too, but because she doesn’t know what that system would look like, she’s just going to the use the word “debate” again.

Unless she really is stuck in a time loop.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.