The latest leadership candidate to suggest immigration was a cause of Labour’s defeat at the polls on May 6th, today. Andy Burnham follows Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, and David Miliband. Diane Abbott has also commented on immigration, though with a different perspective.
I’ve had some thoughts rattling around my head so it was interesting to hear the issue discussed at a seminar featuring none of the leadership contenders (yep, such events do still exist) during Progress’ conference on Saturday.
First thing to say is that it is good the conference showed that we – left-wing activists and Labour’s political elites – are prepared to talk, on a wider scale, about immigration. But unfortunately, it is coming too late. In the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the general election, polling shows immigration as the second top issue, behind only the economy. Yet the national campaign and leadership said very little about it.
Between the campaign, the party machine, and the political leadership, the decision was clearly taken that set-piece events would, as much as possible, avoid the general public and significant efforts would be invested in filling rooms with (often young) enthusiastic party members. There was to be a distance between Gordon Brown and the undecided electorate. But if Labour is not willing to connect with the people of this country, and talk about the issues people are concerned about in their communities, then who is? Feeling this was the wrong approach, I grew frustrated some time before the Rochdale visit: when the problem blew up following Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy. She could have mentioned any issue and drawn a similar reaction from any of the party leaders, but what was very evident to me was the reluctance of our party leader to talk to ‘unvetted’ members of the public and an unwillingness to engage in significant conversation on an issue he himself appeared uncomfortable with. It was this, rather than the fact it happened to be immigration policy, that appeared to me to be most problematic.
Prior to this Saturday’s conference, with the prevalence of leadership candidates’ comments, I began to question which seats we actually lost because of immigration. Andy Burnham’s interview today suggests that “it was the biggest doorstep issue in constituencies where Labour lost”. I’d be interested to hear which seats he puts in this category. Because I think there’s plenty of evidence of constituencies where immigration is a big issue which returned Labour MPs. The two seats in Barking and Dagenham; Birmingham Hodge Hill where Liam Byrne doubled his majority; Slough; Leicester West – and so on.
So, when Ben Page of Ipsos-MORI told Saturday’s sideroom session that his polling did not show immigration as a big reason for voting Tory and that it was actually only the fourth highest issue on election day, I was not too surprised. The reason being that the effect immigration has on the Labour campaign was not necessarily a problem of policy but more likely one of the way we campaigned. That Labour’s punishment was for the unwillingness to listen, connect and engage – whatever the issue. Most people were not voting on immigration. But they were noting the way Labour’s leadership handled the issue and were making judgments on how the party might handle other big concerns. Those seats I highlight above can point to success despite this because candidates there were willing to talk about the issue and run strong local campaigns. They did not even do this in the same way as each other (Margaret Hodge and Jon Cruddas presented different analyses and approaches in the same borough) but they were open to talk about what their constituents were concerned about.
Sally Keeble, who lost her Northampton South seat, argued that we shouldn’t over-emphasise the impact of immigration as an issue in her defeat, and Liam Byrne told the audience that it was important to avoid reactionary conclusions on the effect of welfare and immigration. His research suggests that people had been feeling pressure on their earnings prior to the global economic crash for up to five years, causing people to be “living in limbo when looking for lift off”. (Peter Kellner, in the conference’s opening plenary, said that YouGov evidence, found BNP and UKIP voters feeling very similarly.) These people thought, Byrne’s analysis goes, that they could turn to the Labour Party to be on their side. The central thrust of my argument is that because of the way the national campaign was run, many voters were left wondering.
Clearly that’s not good enough and is something our next leader will want to think about.
Halfway through writing this post I cam across a news story from last week with the view of the last immigration minister, Phil Woolas, and some quotes from Patrick Diamond, who worked on the manifesto from No.10 (and was seen picking up a copy of the YF Fast Forward pamphlet on Saturday). It is worth a read. What Patrick says is not dissimilar from my argument; but where he defines the party’s ‘cultural ethos’ in terms of Labour issues and non-Labour issues, I am defining it as an approach to campaigning (and perhaps also governing).
Most of the leadership contenders have highlighted the need to look at how the party organises itself – the sooner the debate gets into detail on this, the better.