Nice door closing Ed. But the immigration horse bolted years ago

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Ed Miliband will this morning deliver a speech on immigration. Now there’s a sentence to be greeted by Labour supporters with trepidation at best and alarm bells at worst….

He has at least learned one crucial lesson from his predecessor. He’ll tell the IPPR that “British jobs for British workers” was the wrong thing to say. What he perhaps should say instead is “British jobs for British workers was the wrong thing to say – especially if you follow it up by calling a lifelong Labour supporter “bigoted” for asking questions about immigration.”

Maybe that’s a bit wordy.

Regardless, immigration is an issue to be handled with care by Labour leaders. It is akin to walking over a rope bridge carrying a narked python. There are multiple potential sticky endings. And in fairness to Ed he seems to realise this. That’s why this carefully worded but ultimately disappointing speech is riddled with so many caveats. Yes, but no. (But yes). (Or was that no?)

But ultimately it’s a carefully structured shutting of the door when the immigration horse wandered off years ago. It’s unlikely to win back any of the former Labour supporters who cite immigration as a problem on the doorstep – so what’s it for?

Miliband will admit that Labour should have taken concerns over Eastern European immigration more seriously. True. But promising to place hypothetical controls on hypothetical future EU ascension states won’t fix that. The speech also appears to disavow Gordon Brown’s handling of immigration, but it echoes many of Brown’s rhetorical flaws – essentially that immigration is good, but we should clamp down on it. A bit. Sort of.

This muddle means Ed risks talking out of both sides of his mouth. It’s speech to Express readers written in the style of a Guardian op-ed, so the message gets lost.

There is no doubt that the need to deal with (legitimate) concerns about immigration is a necessary and established part of the political debate. Yet Labour is (or should be) the party most embedded in the communities that fear immigration most and suffer most harshly from the chilly winds of laissez-faire free market globalisation. From their point of view it looks like “our” jobs are being sent “over there”, whilst “they” are coming “over here”. Which in many ways is true.

Yet the vast majority of British people (and Labour voters) are not racist or even “bigoted”. Mercifully Ed – a man with the likeable habit of thinking the best of people – seems to agree. That’s why he’ll say:

“Worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration, does not make them bigots. Not in any way. They are anxious about the future. Labour, which is more rooted in peoples’ lives than any other party, must listen to those anxieties and speak directly to them in return. That’s not bowing to the Right. It’s doing what Labour does best.”

But why splash about in the shallow end of this debate? The answers are not simple, but they are fairly obvious. There aren’t enough jobs, poverty is rising and perhaps most crucially of all – there’s a chronic lack of houses. Tackle even one of these and you will reduce fear of immigration – and the impact of immigration on the communities that are hardest hit.

Of course there are cultural concerns too. Anyone who has ever spent any time on any inner city estate will tell you that. But joblessness and the rise of social housing as “last resort” accommodation are at least as at fault as immigration.

The truth is that we may well have an “immigration problem”, but it is dwarfed by and subservient to a far greater problem – too many poor people. Too many people written off, or abandoned in areas with no jobs, no prospects, no hope and no political solution save for “on your bike” (from Bolton to Sunderland).

Talking “tough” on immigration looks easier in policy terms – and in media terms – than building hundreds of thousands of homes and creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. But our politics should be big enough to have that as an aim, rather than accepting one set of poor people being fearful of another set of poor people as an unalterable and inevitable status quo.

They deserve better than that. Ed Miliband is better than that – and he needs to be brave enough to think bigger than that. Or there’s a real risk that in a few years time another Labour leader will end up giving this speech all over again.

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