December 23, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
The Labour Party is undergoing convulsions on the topic of immigration this week. First, Ed Miliband gave what he had trailed as a big speech on immigration that lasted only seven minutes and involved no questions being allowed from the assembled journalists. It carried on with an internal memo written by Lucy Powell (his chief election strategist) being leaked to the Daily Telegraph, in which Labour activists were advised not to engage with anyone wanting to talk about immigration on the doorsteps. Confused? So are they.
This is caused by Labour’s association with the massive rise in immigration during their 13 years in power from 1997-2010. First was the policy of “managed migration” that was a feature of the first few years in power. This was confirmed by Andrew Neather, who used to work for Tony Blair in Downing Street, and blew the whistle in 2009 about the covering up and redactions applied to a document about the increase in immigration that was created in 2001. The policy was partly about the fashionable cause of celebrating diversity but was far more likely to be about the fact that these migrants were more likely to vote Labour. The next part was the decision in 2004 to be one of three countries in the EU NOT to apply transitional controls to migration from the 10 countries that joined that year. This resulted in over a million immigrants coming (rather than the 13,000 Labour had predicted), and means that Labour caused the situation we have now where a political party as chaotic as UKIP managing to get to a position where they could be deciding who governs us in six months’ time.
So when Labour speak about their concerns about immigration, their credibility is lost because it was a problem their policies caused in the first place. It is why Lucy Powell’s document, which is actually rather sensible in the most part, suggests that talking about immigration on a doorstep will not be helpful for Labour candidates. They are advised to “move the conversation on” should it come up. The rights and wrongs of this advice are to be debated. It was an internal document and frankly, when you have a party like UKIP promising that every problem in the world will be solved by reducing immigration it is very hard for Labour activists – representing as they do a party that may actually have to make the compromises of power – to combat that.
Back to Ed Miliband’s speech. The problem is that Labour has an intellectually incoherent position. UKIP are very clear – withdraw from Europe to reduce immigration – whether right or wrong. The Conservatives are slightly less coherent but still on the way – they want negotiate controls on freedom of movement of workers and will provide a referendum for the public whether or not they achieve that. Labour, meanwhile, are offering what they say are policies on immigration but they are not actually policies – because there is absolutely nothing new in what he said. Labour won’t offer a referendum on the EU, and as long as we are in the EU we can’t actually do much about freedom of movement of workers.
So when Miliband’s press officers offer us “legislation to reduce exploitation of foreign workers” they can present it all they like as a new policy. They can pretend all they like that they are finally listening to those voters they are losing on the doorstep whose wages have been forced down by the additional supply of workers from the EU. They must have focused grouped that one and thought “what policy can we come up with”? Miliband can pretend all he likes that it is about saying to an employer – “if you are offering £8 an hour to British workers you cannot then offer minimum wage to foreign workers”.
But there are already laws on this. Employers cannot pay less than the minimum wage. We already have laws on modern slavery and human trafficking. We have health and safety legislation. So there are no new laws being proposed.
What’s more – the number of migrant workers actually being “exploited” in this country are so small that even if Miliband’s “solution” was addressing a real problem it would simply not reduce immigration. Almost all immigrants are filling jobs that needed filling, have the skills to do that, AND they have the legal right to be in this country. As long as we are in the EU.
So, as long as Labour are not even going to offer a referendum on whether we are staying in the EU, there is nothing they can do about immigration from the EU. Furthermore, when you were the party with the explicit policy to increase immigration, with the Prime Minister who called someone with legitimate questions about it a “bigot”, you probably should be avoiding talking about it on the doorstep.
The Economy and immigration. Both no go areas if Labour want to win the next election. You can see now why Ed Miliband ‘forgot’ them when he gave his Conference speech.