Leadership race comes alive with debate on immigration

At the New Statesman hustings last night, the most lively, passionate, interesting and important exchanges came during the question on immigration.

At the New Statesman hustings last night, the most lively, passionate, interesting and important exchanges came during the question on immigration. The candidates could have spent the whole night debating it and the audience would have been better informed about who has what it takes to lead Labour back to Government, had they have had the chance.

Instead, the obligatory Iraq question and two questions guaranteed by the sponsors of the event (Trident from CND and the alternative vote from the Campaign for Electoral Reform) ate up the clock.

Diane Abbott’s vocal and passionate cheering squad was joined by the rest of the audience when she demanded that Labour’s leaders ignore opinion polls and “hold the line”. She argued that leadership is about knowing when to follow public opinion and knowing when to lead it.

She said she doesn’t care how many voters raise the issue, Labour simply has to “hold the line”. It was the biggest cheer and the longest applause of the night.

She proudly declared that it wasn’t an issue in Hackney. Is that because of her political leadership? Possibly. Or is it because Hackney has diverse communities and is comfortable with metropolitan multiculturalism? But her more profound comment came when she asserted that anxiety about immigration “is a proxy for angst about housing and jobs for the working class”.

Research published by Demos shows that in 1997 just 5 per cent of people saw immigration as one of the major issues facing Britain but by 2006 40 per cent did. Before the last election, three-quarters of the country saw it as a problem and over half the voters Labour lost since 2005 say it is one of the most important issues facing the country. But at the same time, nearly three fifths of voters disagree with the statement “I would rather live in an area where people are from the same ethnic background as me”.

David Miliband rightly identified it as a fairness issue not a race issue, saying that “Punjabis are complaining about Polish immigrants”. Abbot and Ed Miliband both identify it as a class issue. All three of them are themselves children of migrants.

Ed Balls said the issue was about the pace of immigration from eastern Europe. He defended his call for transitional controls on the free moment of workers as a pro-European position, necessary to maintain support for European integration. But David Miliband told Ed Balls that Turkey isn’t ready to enter the EU and that ‘British jobs for British workers’ was a mistake. Andy Burnham said British workers had benefited from free moment and if you’ve ever had egg and chips washed down with Guinness at the Dog and Duck pub on the Costa de Sol, you will know what he means.

Ed Miliband said the issue was one of class and repeated his call for a nationwide living wage. Andy Burnham said migrants shouldn’t be able to send child benefit claimed in the UK back to their countries of origin. Every candidate agreed that the Labour Government had dragged its feet on the Agency Workers Directive.

It was fascinating, thought provoking, issues-driven and policy relevant debate that is politically vital for Labour to get sorted out. This is the debate that the Left needs to resolve and the issues that Jon Cruddas was raising in the 2007 deputy leadership contest, only for them to get brushed under the carpet.

Labour’s leadership election needs to be about policy issues and big ideas, not just about values and character. The left needs an open debate about our direction and it began last night, with candidates showing leadership and disagreeing on policy, not personality.

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12 Responses to “Leadership race comes alive with debate on immigration”

  1. oldpolitics

    “Nearly three fifths of voters disagree with the statement ‘I would rather live in an area where people are from the same ethnic background as me'”

    Interesting, though hard to reconcile with the extent to which people choose to do exactly that if they have the means – et tu, Billy Bragg 🙂

  2. Samir Sharma

    Leadership race comes alive with debate on immigration | Left Foot …: At the New Statesman hustings last night, … http://bit.ly/b5oK6R

  3. sabian

    After attending the first debate, i have the following observations.

    D Miliband struck me as a serious thinker. He is super geeky, so can be a little bit painful to hear him speak at times. But as the contest progresses, forcing him to speak to the rest of humanity, that may soften. He offered a pretty cogent and well thought out critique of Labour, whilst showing that he is thinking philosophically and strategically about the future of the party. Whether this can be translated to ‘easy read’ will be his challenge. He couldn’t hide his disdain when others made arguments that he thought were ill thought out, irrelevant or stupid. .

    D Miliband said his leadership will show that he ‘thinks carefully about a decision and then i will stick to it’. A subtle dig at other contenders that may or may not get picked up. He seemed to be getting a little bit agitated when the two Ed’s seemed to be pivoting or championing positions that were not heard behind closed doors in Government or made to the public (a point he made when discussing Trident).

    E Miliband admitted, when challenged by E Balls, that if he’d of been an MP he would have voted against the war. He may have made this comment previously, but if he’s after the anti war vote, the time has passed, and he was so quiet about this early opposition many people in the audience gave a startled murmur in surprise.

    I was surprised by my reaction to E Miliband. He struck me as being a bit of an opportunist and an annoying smart arse (more so than his brother!!). We were treated to a load of students at the main entrance with placards shouting ‘vote Ed’. It was hideously Obamaesque but terribly Obama-lite. As a cabinet member and author of the manifesto, he seems to have pivoted on a number issues very quickly now the big prize is in front of him. He argued he could inspire, but i was left feeling he was a bit of a light-weight. He subtly but brazenly seemed to abscond from the collective responsibility of cabinet. There needs to be freshness, innovation and new ideas, but to run away from a manifesto you wrote 1 month ago (and over three years) strikes me as not taking enough responsibility. Why sell something that you didn’t completely believe in.

    I want revisionism and reflection, but i’m very wary of people offering brand spanking new ideas so soon after being on another bandwagon. To Burnham, D Miliband and E Balls’ credit, i think they offered a much better critique of the failings of the past 13 years, at the same time as not running away from their record, woven into a narrative on the Labour parties future. D Miliband and Burnham did this a little bit better than the others IMHO.

    Ed Balls was interesting. He is certainly not the caricature that is regularly painted in the press. He seemed most at ease with himself, humorous, extremely combative and obviously bright. I’d be interested to see if he can actually articulate a vision of the future. He struck me as being extremely tactical, organised and pugilistic. He does seem liberated by not having GB around though. I don’t think he will win, but i can now understand why he is feared. He is no nonsense, sharp, and the kind of person to win many battles for you. But ultimately, he would lose the war because he seems to get a kick out fighting something.

    Burnham was the unapologetic continuity candidate. He seems like a really nice guy, fair, non divisive, collegiate, but lacking in charisma and big thinking. Maybe that might play well to some Labour constituents but he’d get absolutely pummelled by Cameron and/or Clegg. He does however have time to sharpen his message. He’s pretty switched on, and i’m sure that he has positioned himself as the blank canvas and plasticine candidate. I say this because his track record has shown an amorphous ability to mould himself to suit any situation (Blair-lite) without too much sticking. He is not to be underestimated. However, he does lack charisma, and that will count in the TV age.

    D Abbot had a lot of fun. Self-deprecating, righteous at times, feigning anger, she has been on TV and the politics game a long time and it showed!! She won’t win the election, but the Labour party definitely needed her there. It significantly shifted the dynamic of the debate, as the others were forced to justify some of their consensual positions, and defend the conventional wisdom. The discussion about Trident was extremely nuanced and interesting, as a result of the left being represented. But as i commented on this blog a month ago, when i stated categorically that Harriet Harman lacked the intellectual curiosity to run for leader after i saw her at a deputy leadership hustings, i can say with confidence that D Abbot has no chance. But she is not to be messed with and has improved this debate.

    I have to admit that the field is quite weak. Being smart does not mean leadership material. IMO Balls and D Miliband showed more leadership credentials and it’ll be between the two. But on seeing Burnham, i think he is a serious dark horse and wildcard because he has that unknown factor – learning a brief and being able to shift and change to his landscape. I just don’t think E Miliband will stand up to scrutiny.

  4. The Labour leadership election – NightHawk

    […] My son Richard, who used to be Special Adviser to Douglas Alexander and is now working on the Open Left project for Demos, was at the hustings and has written about it here. […]

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