“We don’t know what you stand for.” That was the lament Labour MPs frequently heard from voters during Ed Miliband’s leadership. The party’s nuanced policies on immigration and the deficit rarely translated into clear messaging.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, the expectation was that this would change. Unlike Miliband, the Labour leader rarely agonises over policy stances. But the party’s position on immigration has recently been defined by confusion.
At the Labour conference, Corbyn’s spokesman stated that it was “not an objective to reduce immigration”. But on the Andrew Marr Show last weekend, new shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer appeared to contradict his leader. “I think it [immigration] should be reduced,” he said, “and it should be reduced by making sure that we’ve got the skills in this country that are needed for the jobs that need to be done.”
Yet that evening, Diane Abbott, now responsible for immigration policy as shadow home secretary, refused to endorse Starmer’s stance. Asked on the Westminster Hour whether numbers should be reduced, she replied: “I think the Tories got themselves in a lot of trouble setting arbitrary targets for immigration. What we should be doing is making sure that our own people have the skills and training to fill the needs of British industry.”
Who’s right? On the Today programme this morning, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry presented the party’s settled position. Asked whether Corbyn agreed with Starmer that numbers should be reduced, she said: “Immigration will be reduced if the government did do as we are suggesting, which is to address our skills problem”. The tension lies between those who believe that reduced immigration should be an explicit policy aim and those who regard it as a potential byproduct of other measures (such as tougher employment regulation).
Corbyn himself stated the latter position in response to the Conservative conference: “They [ministers] should stop the abuse of migrant labour to undercut pay and conditions, which would reduce numbers,” he said. As one might add, would a Brexit-induced crash.
But the fine distinction between believing immigration will be reduced and that it should be is one interviewers are likely to repeatedly exploit.