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Cracking Down on Immigration Won't Help Labour See Off Ukip

After the Clacton and Heywood and Middleton by-elections, Labour has to find ways of reaching out to and reconnecting with the so-called 'left behind' Ukip voters - but without throwing migrants or minorities under the bus.

It didn't take long, did it? Within hours of the by-election result in Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip zoomed into second place just 617 votes behind the winning Labour candidate, a chorus of voices began urging Her Majesty's Opposition tack to the right on immigration in order to see off the Farageists at the general election next May.

The Telegraph's Dan Hodges issued this sarcastic tweet: "[E]veryone on the Left will scream 'Something must be done about Ukip. But don't touch welfare, immigration or English votes'."

The Sun's Steven Hawkes asked: "Will Labour toughen their stance on immigration and EU freedom of movement?"

Even the Guardian joined in. The paper's northern editor Helen Pidd wrote: "Labour didn't seem to want to engage with immigration as a topic."

Personally, I don't buy it. Why? First, because Labour has shifted to the right on immigration already and, second, because such political manoeuvring doesn't work.

Let's take each of these points in turn.

First, there's the insidious myth that Labour doesn't "engage" on immigration or hasn't "touched" or "toughened" its stance on immigration. As I wrote back in January:

"Week after week, senior Labour figures queue up to express regret over the party's record on immigration. Ed Miliband thinks 'low-skill migration has been too high and we need to bring it down'. Jon Cruddas, Labour's policy review co-ordinator, claims the party 'got things wrong' on immigration. The former foreign secretary Jack Straw believes opening the UK's borders to eastern European migrants was a 'spectacular mistake' that he 'deeply regrets'."

We have had confessions, concessions apologies and mea culpas from pretty much every senior member of the shadow cabinet. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has taken a much harder line on immigration over the past four years, as has her husband, the shadow chancellor Ed Balls who talks (incorrectly, as it happens) about the negative impact of low-skilled migrants on wages in the UK.

Cooper, among other things, has called for exit checks at UK ports and airports to ensure the authorities know when people leave the country; wants "swifter action when people overstay"; demanded that the UK introduce the toughest possible transitional controls in relation to migration from new EU member states; and supported the Conservative-led government's plans for greater residency tests on EU migrants trying to claim benefits in the UK.

In her recent conference speech in Manchester, the shadow home secretary said: "Yes, Labour got things wrong on immigration - on transitional controls for Eastern Europe, on the impact on jobs... a Labour Government will bring in stronger border controls to tackle illegal immigration." On EU migration into the UK she referred to "not free movement, but fair movement".

Miliband himself has delivered two set-piece speeches on immigration and featured in a party political broadcast on the issue in which he told viewers that Labour was "wrong when we dismissed people's concerns". In a speech in March 2013, the Labour leader grabbed the headlines by insisting that "all state workers in face-to-face contact with the public would have to be able to speak English".

So, does Labour "ignore" immigration or is it "soft" on the issue? No. Is it in favour of "open borders" as some newspaper columnists still seem to believe? Don't be silly.

Second, the evidence is in. The proposition that moving to the right on immigration, and cracking down on migrants' rights and benefits, helps ward off the Ukip threat is a proposition that's been tested. By the Conservatives. And it hasn't worked.

Remember David Cameron's promise to cut net migration to "tens of thousands"? How about his coalition government's arbitrary cap on immigrants from outside the EU?

"We're cutting net immigration from outside the EU to levels not seen since the 1990s and clamping down on benefits tourism and health tourism, shutting down bogus colleges and making it easier to deport foreign criminals."

The main Conservative website brags that "net immigration has fallen by a quarter since its peak in 2005 under Labour".

Don't forget either the 'go home' illegal immigration vans or the Home Office live-tweeting of immigration raids. Or the deportation of Abu Qatada to Jordan. Or the fact that in his recent conference speech, the prime minister even pledged to put restrictions on the free movement of labour within the European Union - one of the founding pillars of the EU - "at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe.

So, after all this, after the past four years of caps, controls and crackdowns, the Tories must be really trusted on immigration now, correct? They must have won back control of the issue from Ukip, right?

Wrong. Check out the pretty devastating results of September's ComRes/ITV News poll on which parties the voters trust to handle immigration.

A whopping 43% trust Ukip, compared to just 16% for the Conservatives - who lead Labour on the issue by a mere four percentage points.

It turns out - shock! horror! - that emulating and embracing Ukip policies and rhetoric on immigration, while indulging voters' prejudices and ignorance on the issue, doesn't undermine Farage and co, it only boosts their appeal and credibility. Who'd have guessed, eh?

As I have said before, "Labour cannot win a Dutch auction on immigration". It was Miliband who once rightly warned Cameron that the PM couldn't "out-Farage Farage". The Labour leader needs to remind himself of this fact and also bear in mind that he can't afford to lose his bloc of ex-Lib Dem voters, who have ensured his party has had a poll lead since 2010 and who won't be keen on an Opposition that brings back the nasty 'British jobs for British workers' rhetoric of the New Labour days.

As for Ukip, as Douglas Alexander, Labour's general election coordinator, observed in an interview on Friday morning: "There's no instant magic policy, no speech or campaign tactic that can itself address the depth of disengagement we're witnessing across the electorate."

He's right. Labour certainly has to find ways of reaching out to and reconnecting with the so-called 'left behind' Ukip voters but without - to borrow a line from activist and commentator Ellie Mae O'Hagan - throwing immigrants - and, for that matter, British-born ethnic minorities - under the bus.

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