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17 November 2016

Team Corbyn’s secret weapon: border control

The victories for Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign have added to the feelgood factor around the leader. 

By Stephen Bush

There’s a spring in the step around Jeremy Corbyn and his team these days.

In part, that’s because of front-of-house changes. The new shadow cabinet is a mixture of old loyalists and those who have proven their willingness to get along, and meetings are, on the whole, a more congenial affair than they were with the old shadow cabinet. Nick Brown, meanwhile, is considered a “dream appointment” by the leader’s allies.

The younger generation favoured Ian Lavery, a former trade union official first elected in 2010, but Corbyn, as well as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, personally favoured Brown, as they know him well from their time as perpetual rebels under New Labour.  As one person familiar with their thinking quipped of Brown: “He’s done it before and he hates Blairites. What’s not to love?”

There is also a sharper operation back-of-house. Writing Corbyn’s speeches used to be a somewhat dysfunctional affair shared between Seumas Milne, communications chief, and Andrew Fisher, the policy lead. Although both men are still involved in shaping drafts, that David Prescott is now responsible for writing them up makes the process “less chaotic” according to one insider.

The press team is also running to full capacity for the first time – as one longtime aide commented “we’ve finally got enough bodies”. Reporting to Milne is Sian Jones, responsible for long-term planning and “the grid” of announcements and interventions, James Schneider, formerly of Momentum, is doing longer-term briefing around strategy, while Matt Zarb-Cousin handles day-to-day briefing and rebuttal.

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There’s also a feeling that the votes to leave the European Union and for Donald Trump show that people are hungry for radical change – one that Corbyn, rather than Theresa May, is well-placed to fill.

But they also know that they have a problem, and the problem is immigration. Even before Trump’s victory, senior aides were talking about “an awareness that the position on immigration needs to change”.

That’s the thinking between a series of coordinated announcements from Labour this week, all with one overarching aim – to reorient the party’s platform on immigration. First, John McDonnell confirmed that the party will not seek to block Brexit. On the single market, what Labour wants is “tariff-free access”, which would, among other benefits, free them up to go into the next election with a more ambitious programme of state aid.

But it would also free them up, if the next election takes place, as Theresa May hopes, after Article 50 is triggered, to go into the election with a sharper offer on border control. One shadow minister describes it like this “radical on the economy, where the public are on immigration”.

Just as Ed Miliband turned to Chuka Umunna and Sadiq Khan to do the heavylifting as far as announcements on immigration were concerned, Clive Lewis, who as well as being from an ethnic minority is popular among activists, has been deployed for many of the more controversial announcements – telling the Guardian that free movement of people has not worked for “millions” of Brits, and announcing today that only people who are members of a trade union should be able to come to work here.

He reiterated that on Sky today, say that “if” immigration has had a net benefit, the benefits have not been share fairly, and the way to tackle that is to compel companies that bring people in from abroad to only bring in those who are trade union members, adding “I think that that will in turn mean that companies will want to begin to take people more often from this country”.

But the stance risks upsetting everybody.  The Conservatives are attacking the plan as meaning that every trade unionist will be able to come to Britain, while Labour’s pro-migrationists are dismayed. (One quipped “So, we’re bringing back the closed shop?”) Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary and Corbyn’s closest ally, remains opposed and will continue to lobby for a more pro-migration policy, publicly and privately.

For longtime veterans of the Labour machine, it feels very familiar to the arguments over migration that disfigured the latter years of Ed Miliband’s reign. “We ended up with a muddle that pleased no-one, and didn’t hold up under fire,” one reflected to me recently. It may be that Corbyn’s anti-migration turn ends up in a similar position.

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