Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper outlined Labour’s new approach to immigration last Thursday in an attempt to seize the initiative from a Coalition fraying at the edges and struggling to reach a consensus on its own policy.
Despite the Prime Minister stressing that the party would not “lurch to the right” in the wake of the Eastleigh by-election, the rhetoric from some ministers has seemingly been at odds with this statement. Home Secretary Theresa May has announced plans to tighten the visa regime for Brazilians, Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has warned of the welfare tourism ‘crisis’, and several ministers have expressed concern over the expected influx of Romanians and Bulgarians in the near future. Yet such obvious efforts from the Conservative party to appease their right-wing backbenchers have unsettled their Liberal Democrat Coalition partners.
Alert to the opportunity to divide and conquer, Labour has been quick to apologise for its past failings and promised to do more in the future to address the economic impact and wider societal consequences of immigration. However, Ms. Cooper was also keen to stress that this would not entail a “move to the right”. Rather, she hailed the benefits that immigration has brought to Britain and pointed to Team GB – a third of whom have parents or grandparents from abroad who made Britain their home – as a celebration of the “strong, diverse and outward looking culture” of which the UK ought to be proud.
The Shadow Home Secretary detailed a series of practical measures that Labour would endeavour to implement. Taking action on short-term student visas was highlighted as a priority, with Ms. Cooper suggesting 150,000 reports of potential abuses of student visas have yet to be verified by the UKBA. This, she claimed, would be preferable to the government’s current approach towards reducing net migration which has prevented swathes of legitimate university students from entering the UK, despite reliable estimates of their value to the economy amounting to £8 billion a year.
Mention was also made of improving the enforcement of labour market regulations to protect vulnerable workers, the need for employers to offer greater training opportunities for the young in place of simply relying on migrant labour, and the importance of institutional reform of the UKBA and the Home Office – the bodies tasked with delivering immigration policy. The latter may well be an admirable aim but, should Labour find themselves back in government after the next election, tackling such deep-rooted problems could prove challenging.
Finally, Ms. Cooper could not avoid touching upon the current contentious issue of migration from within the EU, agreeing that the government was right to assess newcomers’ ability to access benefits and the health service provided it did so in a ‘sensible’ way. However, Labour enters dangerous territory when it attempts to reach out to those who typecast migrants as ‘scroungers’. It would be better to concentrate instead upon garnering public support by doing what the Coalition has failed to do: shunning such misinformed stereotypes and advocating a fair and universal welfare system, albeit with a firm emphasis upon contribution.
So is the Labour Party offering anything very different? Probably not.