Two stories have dominated the British news agenda this summer – the migration crisis in Europe and the Labour leadership contest. With the vote on the latter fast approaching, it’s worth considering where the candidates stand on the former.
The jury is still out on why Labour failed to appeal to enough of the electorate in the 2015 election. What is certain is that it lost voters to UKIP (as well as the SNP). Again, there are probably many reasons why many traditional Labour voters plumped for UKIP but one of them is plainly that Labour failed to convince this cohort that it had a sound immigration policy.
With public concerns over immigration consistently rising, and neither Labour nor the Tories “winning” the debate, it’s becoming clear that no centrist party knows which way to turn.
So what are the candidates in the Labour leadership election offering by way of immigration policies? Can they do better than Ed Miliband?
Immigration is not among the 11 key policies that front runner Jeremy Corbyn “is standing to deliver”.
In the upcoming EU referendum, free movement will necessarily be a big issue. Corbyn’s position on the UK’s continuing participation in the Union after negotiations is precarious. He sees a need for more trade union involvement and argues that the UK must demand reasonable levels of working rights to seal the deal. But this will not be on the table as David Cameron seeks to negotiate new terms for the UK.
Corbyn’s support for trade unionism means he is naturally concerned about wages for low skilled work being undercut by immigration. This is similar to Miliband’s views so we might expect Corbyn to propose something akin to Labour’s election promise to tackle the exploitation of migrant workers.
Nonetheless Corbyn has said that the debate on immigration has been “poisoned”, and has criticised his party’s weak defence on the issue. He has campaigned on behalf of asylum seekers, and emphasises the important role that mosques have played in supporting refugees. But this all means he sits awkwardly between being suspicious of internationalism while championing migration and multiculturalism.
As the former shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper has more to say on immigration. Her policies are, unsurprisingly, not dissimilar to those touted by Labour in its 2015 campaign.
In her ministerial role, Cooper did a lot of apologising for Labour’s “mistakes” on immigration, and has parroted the need to address the real concerns people have on immigration.
She has said in the past that Labour would call for the EU to provide dedicated funding to help regions cope when their populations rise as a result of immigration. It’s a novel idea but how it would operate in practice remains to be seen.
Like Corbyn, Cooper claims that the challenge is to face up to the exploitation of migrant labour by making it a crime, saying that such exploitation is modern day slavery. Yet like her former leader and her fellow contenders she maintains that EU citizens should not be allowed to claim benefits for at least two years.
Andy Burnham seems to have the least to say on immigration, although he’s very keen on his catchphrase “freedom to work is not the same as freedom to claim”. Burnham’s statements on immigration are indistinguishable from the 2015 campaign, and in many respects, those put out by the government.
He warns that the EU referendum risks being lost unless there are significant changes to EU migration. And – you guessed it – he also wants to ban EU citizens from claiming welfare benefits until they have worked for two years.
Burnham has mentioned the possibility of EU funding to plug the gap in costs to public services in areas most affected by migration, but this seems to be an afterthought lifted from Cooper. He claims that “people have legitimate concerns about immigration”, and that Labour therefore needs “real answers to these concerns”. As a prospective leader one would think Burnham should be supplying some answers but we are yet to hear what these real solutions are.
According to Liz Kendall, the final Labour leader contender, the solution is to reintroduce an Australian style points-based system, as people are fed up seeing migrants “scrambling on to lorries from Calais”. Advocating the same policy as UKIP tells you something about where Kendall sits on this issue. She claims that “terrorism and migration are global challenges” and that we must “get real over controlling immigration”.
Kendall has also talked about taking tax credits away from new migrant workers, on top of restricting access to benefits and social housing. Despite this, she has repeatedly dodged questions about whether she would support restricting benefits for EU migrants – a seemingly odd move given her fairly clear position on the issue, not to mention her endorsement of Miliband’s pledge on this. Apparently she hated the mugs though.
All things considered, there is little to separate the immigration policies of the so-called New Labourites in this leadership contest. As on so many other issues, Corbyn stands apart from the pack. But his ideological vision doesn’t lend itself to producing a coherent immigration policy either.
Just as the narrative about Labour causing the recession became fact, with all the contenders claiming they got it wrong on immigration there is little room for any debate. Yet with Labour’s socially conservative voters long defected to UKIP, and the Tories adopting Miliband’s policies unnoticed, perhaps it is time for a change in tack.