Ukip voters are "darkly pessimistic" about their lives, a Labour shadow minister claimed as he acknowledged his party had to be "honest" about the impact of immigration on communities. Shadow universities minister Liam Byrne said Labour had to have the "courage" to put immigration at the top of the list of issues the party talks about.
Mr Byrne, who was an immigration minister in the Labour government, said voters often spent time "getting stuff off their chest" during discussions about the subject, but had a "sophisticated" understanding of the issue. The Birmingham Hodge Hill MP said Ed Miliband had to offer a positive vision to voters who had been attracted to Nigel Farage's party.
He told Total Politics magazine: "(Bill) Clinton said progressives win when we talk about the future. Tony (Blair) was brilliant at that and Ed is brilliant at that, and that is how Labour wins, giving people hope that there is a better future ahead. The curious thing about Ukip voters is that they have one big thing in common: they are darkly pessimistic about themselves and their lives and if you want people to vote for progressive politics, you need people that are optimistic."
Mr Byrne acknowledged voters' concerns about immigration but insisted the public would support his plan to encourage more overseas students to come to UK universities. He has vowed that Labour will remove students from migration targets, and told the magazine that people realised overseas students were "good for Britain".
He said: "I talk about immigration all the time with my constituents in public meetings, on the doorstep, in surveys, and I have always found that once you get through the first five or 10 minutes and people getting stuff off their chest, basically you get to a conversation about how are we going to change this for the better and people know that students are good for Britain, not bad for Britain, they know that they are critical for our future influence in the world, they know that they bring money into our country and they also know that they create a richer and more interesting classroom for their own kids."
Ukip delegates sing Land of Hope and Glory at the end of their conference
Mr Byrne defended his party's record on immigration, saying "this is not an argument Labour needs to be afraid of. We introduced the points system, we began down the road to earned citizenship, we created the UK Border Agency, we put in place e-Borders, we put in place biometrics in visas, we began to restore exit checks. This Government has dismantled half of that - it's mad," he said.
"So we can win an argument on this but we have got to have the courage to put it at the top of our list of things that we talk about. And we have got to be honest about the realities. I got into all kinds of bother when I became the first Labour immigration minister, saying 'you know what, immigration does have an impact on public services, so should we just be honest about that and actually create a funding system that fixes it?'
"So let's just tell it how it is and propose some solutions. That's what people pay us to go to work to do: solve things." He added: "What people won't have, quite rightly, is politicians ignoring immigration and what is going on right now is people in Britain think that politicians are ignoring immigration and they are so frustrated with David Cameron who promised to bring net migration down by tens of thousands and has palpably failed, so the trust level with politicians in immigration is low.
"If people then sense that politicians are trying to duck the issue or avoid it or not confront it they are just not prepared to have that and frankly why should they? They pay us to go to work, they expect us to talk about issues that are changing things in their street in their workplaces and in their lives so as someone who as always talked about immigration for 10 years with my constituents I feel very strongly that we have a moral responsibility to lead the conversation for solutions on immigration reform."
Labour has proposed reducing maximum tuition fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000 as part of a move to replace them with a graduate tax, but Mr Byrne would not give details of the policy. If you bring fees down you save a fortune in debt write-off, that's the truth. Because if people are borrowing less, they are more likely to pay more of it back.
"Something like £70 billion is forecast to be written off, and we just don't have that money. So the current system is unsustainable and it is going to have to change. That is the kind of craziness in the current system. But until we know how much money the government has put aside it is really hard to pin it down."
Mr Byrne brushed off criticism from senior Labour figures, including major donors, about the plans for a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2 million. He said: "Look, there are some taxes that are going to have to go up. The mansion tax is one of those taxes, and that is going to affect better-off citizens in London and there are Labour donors among them. Is it a surprise? No."