Rearguard action by the far-Left
Pro-immigration groups and leftwing activists have spoken out against Labour’s leadership candidates for blaming the party’s electoral defeat on lax rules allowing too many people into the UK.
Hina Majid, legal policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, told the FT the group was “worried about the direction the party might be taking”.
Will Straw, editor of Left Foot Forward, an increasingly influential left-leaning blog, said: “The very worst thing the Labour party could do at this time is try to tack to the right.”
Leadership candidates including David Miliband and Ed Balls have suggested that Labour made mistakes over its immigration policy and paid the price at the ballot box on May 6.
“The views of the working classes are a bit more nuanced than is being suggested,” said Ms Majid. “People are quick to mention it, but it is usually more of a symbol for other worries about public services and particularly housing. “There is often hostility on one hand but also an acknowledgement that migration does bring benefits.”
Mr Balls has claimed that Britain let in too many unskilled migrants during Labour’s three terms in government. David Miliband, meanwhile, has said Labour was “playing catch-up on immigration” and Ed Miliband has warned of public perceptions that the party did not take the issue seriously enough.
Other candidates have said that immigration helped to undermine Labour’s popularity, though they have not argued that its policies on the issue were wrong.
Andy Burnham said that immigration was “the biggest issue at the election”, although he added that Labour had taken steps to toughen the system.
All those bidding for the leadership are aware that support for the party sank sharply in one demographic group – the “C2” skilled manual labourers who gave vital support to Labour a decade ago. They see a renewed focus on “core” issue such as wages, housing and migration a way to reconnect with this group.
The new coalition government has vowed to put a cap on the number of non-EU migrants entering Britain each year, without so far specifying the size of the cap.
With net migration from eastern Europe now falling – about 1m people came to work in the UK in recent years – some voices within Labour are calling for restraint on the issue.
Diane Abbott, on entering the contest, said: “One of the things that made me run was hearing candidate after candidate saying that immigration lost us the election,” she said. “We need to be careful about scapegoating immigrants in a recession.” Ms Abbott has acknowledged that the issue was a major electoral factor but suggested it was a proxy for other issues such as housing and unemployment.
Mr Straw agreed, saying: “These are all issues we can deal with without shutting the door on migrants.”
Tim Finch, head of migration at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left of centre think-tank, said Labour had tightened immigration policies since 2005 but failed to communicate this clearly to the public. “If you asked what policies people wanted they would pretty much tally with what the party has brought in,” he said. “The problem with the core vote is the party just didn’t want to listen to them.”
Ministers had also made a mistake by concentrating on the “macro” argument that migration helped the economy, said Mr Finch. They had meanwhile dismissed anyone arguing against migration as stupid or nasty, he claimed.
“Now it is the number one or two issue in the leadership race,” he said. “The worry for some of us is that they are panicked because it came up on the doorstep time and time again. The sensible thing to do is to take a deep breath and find out what is really going on.”