25 June 2012

“Ed Miliband’s immigration mea culpa is mistake”

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The Labour leader’s focus in his immigration speech was a mistake. Voters are not hung up on what has happened, they want to know what needs to happen next, says Shamit Saggar.

At first blush many people will be encouraged to hear the Labour leader say openly that the last Labour government got it wrong on immigration. In fact, the current vogue is for leaders – political, commercial and others – to put their hands up when errors are made. This tactic signals a determination to learn and improve, and it is something I would normally endorse. But, in this case, I think that it is a strategic mistake that muddles the role immigration will have in winning or losing the next election and displays an astonishing failure of political confidence. I say this for three reasons.

First, mea cupla misses the point that Labour’s recovery is under way. Thus far it has been powered by the Coalition government losing its way on the economy and a succession of self-inflicted wounds on the theme of Tory privilege. Mr Miliband’s team has been torturing over making this speech for a year but in that period the external environment has changed considerably. The Opposition, while not quite resurgent, is benefitting from the Government’s mid term blues and from infighting within the Coalition.

To reinforce this advantage, expert opinion confirms that the Tories have only a modest chance of winning the next election outright – to do so, they must be 6-8 percentage points ahead of Labour in the national ballot, whereas Labour can potentially win with a lead less than half that large. So, why start complicating things by raising anger-over-immigration-under-Labour as an issue? It looks terribly defeatist to be going backwards at this moment.

Secondly, if saying sorry is a pre-requisite to electoral credibility for Labour, it is notable that this does not apply to Ed Balls and the party’s economic strategy.  Indeed, here the approach is to hound the Chancellor at every opportunity – and the reason is that the Government’s strategy is, thus far, not working. So, again, it is unsettling to see a Labour leadership singling out immigration in contrast to the economy – the two issues that were central in Labour’s 2010 defeat.

If anything, admitting guilt will only incentivise Conservative right-wingers to exploit immigration as an electoral issue in the second half of the parliament. The Tories will face hard choices as to how far they turn up the heat on immigration, crime and security to frighten voters about Labour’s record and values. The Miliband speech has made it more, not less, likely that the election will take such a turn.

Finally, the Labour leader’s speech risks a backlash by drawing attention to an issue that traditionally is a “Tory slam dunk” concern. Most voters instinctively recognise that the NHS, schools and employee rights are natural Labour territory, just as immigration, defence and policing are safe territory for the Conservatives. Conventional election strategy dictates that parties play to their strengths. And they only depart from this when voters are deadlocked (ie, the “Who is most trusted on the economy?” question currently is wide open) or when parties are in a corner and prepared to take risks or face certain defeat. Neither condition applies to the Labour party in mid 2012, so it is bizarre to start a national debate about something voters have already discounted against. All it achieves is remind the press and voters of Labour’s weakness.

Why has this happened? The obvious reason is that Labour has suffered a long neurosis on the immigration issue. It has always been on the defensive on immigration. For sure, it has a fair bit to regret on immigration policy when it was in office. But Labour can recklessly beat itself up too much as a way of atoning for past sins. It is excessive, ill-timed and missing the main reasons that are causing the Coalition to stumble.

It is far better, in my view, to limit campaigning on this issue to a) deriding the ineffectiveness of the government’s immigration cap, and b) describing in as much detail as possible how Labour would strength the immigration system. These are the only things voters are interested in at present. Step back, and it is clear that they are interested in who is right about the economy and sensitive to the appearance of special favours to bankers, oligarchs and others. That describes nine-tenths of what is most likely to determine the next election’s outcome.

Voters are no longer stuck on Labour’s past misjudgements on immigration or the economy, however valid. But this speech gives Labour’s opponents licence to obsess about Labour’s weakness on one issue alone. Sadly, it speaks volumes about how much immigration still haunts modern Labour politicians.

Shamit Saggar is a professor of politics at Sussex University.

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