Jeremy Corbyn calls David Cameron's migrant benefits plan "irrelevant" rather than wrong

The Labour leader avoids outright condemnation of the Tories' proposal to limit payments to EU migrants. 

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The only part of David Cameron's EU renegotiation likely to attract public interest is his plan to limit in-work benefits for migrants. No.10 adopted the policy after focus groups found that it had more "cut-through" than a limit on numbers.

Reports at the weekend suggested that Jeremy Corbyn, who is in Brussels for a meeting of the Party of European Socialists, would attack the plan as "discriminatory". Under Cameron's "emergency brake", EU migrants would be barred from claiming full in-work benefits for four years, with payments graduated over that period. Corbyn's planned "attack" troubled Labour MPs, who feared their leader setting himself against a popular policy. Shadow cabinet ministers warned of a clash between Corbyn and shadow home secretary Andy Burnham, who takes a notably more sceptical stance on immigration. "I don't want to lose Andy over this," one told me. 

But Corbyn's "attack" has proved to be far milder than billed. In remarks issued tonight, he described the emergency brake as "largely irrelevant to the problems it is supposed to address" and noted that there was "no evidence that it will act as a brake on inward migration". That is some distance from describing it as "discriminatory". Indeed, Conservative MPs, who fear that the new national living wage will act as a draw  for migrants, wouldn't disagee with a word. Corbyn also warned that the policy "won't put a penny in the pockets of workers in Britain" or "stop the undercutting of UK wages by the exploitation of migrant workers". Rather than protesting over discrimination against would-be migrants, the Labour leader's objection is to discrimination against existing workers - a quite different argument. 

Asked whether Corbyn's description of the emergency brake as "irrelevant" meant he did not oppose it, a spokesman would not elaborate on his statement. Another Labour source told me: "We support the contributory principle for migrants". 

Corbyn almost certainly does regard the emergency brake as discriminatory and wrong. But that he has chosen not to say so is another example of the pragmatism he has intermittently displayed since becoming leader. 

His full statement appears below. 

“The negotiations David Cameron is conducting on Britain’s relationship with the European Union are a theatrical sideshow, designed to appease his opponents within the Conservative party. They are not about delivering reforms that would make the EU work better for working people. 

“The Labour Party will campaign to keep Britain in Europe in the forthcoming referendum, regardless of the outcome of the talks being held in Brussels today. That is because it brings investment, jobs and protection for British workers and consumers. 

“David Cameron’s misnamed 'emergency brake' on migrants’ in-work benefits is largely irrelevant to the problems it is supposed to address. There is no evidence that it will act as a brake on inward migration.  And it won’t put a penny in the pockets of workers in Britain or stop the undercutting of UK wages by the exploitation of migrant workers. 

“David Cameron’s negotiations are a missed opportunity to make the case for the real reforms the EU needs: democratisation, stronger workers’ rights, an end to austerity, and a halt to the enforced privatisation of public services.”

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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