As witnessed in Liverpool over the weekend, Labour moderates are floundering in the face of Corbyn’s even bigger win amongst the membership, not ready to split but not sure what the other options really entail. They are trying a few things out, experimenting. One trend we’re seeing a bit of now is trying to re-pitch the Labour right as doubtful about the benefits of immigration.
Rachel Reeves is in the headlines for this approach today. Her actual comments aren’t quite as bad in context as the “tinderbox”, Enoch Powell-esque headlines suggest, and the “Red UKIP” jibes are over the top – but she was clearly trying to pitch herself and where she felt the Labour party should be, which is clearly more doubtful on where the Labour Party should stand on migration issues than current policy.
To some extent, I understand the political motivations here. We had a referendum a few months ago in which a lot of places which are safe Labour areas voted to leave the EU, almost certainly in most cases due at least in part to migration concerns. But I can’t see how talking up a tough line on immigration from the backbenches is going to soften the idea amongst the public that Labour is a pro-immigration party. In other words, who is going to vote Labour because they want a government that is tough on immigration?
It’s not just Rachel, though. Andy Burnham has said, ““Labour must face up fully to this fact: millions of our lifelong supporters voted to leave the EU and voted for change on immigration.” Shadow Education Minister Angela Rayner has said, ““We have to have controls on immigration, that’s quite clear. You have to know who is coming in to your country and who is leaving your country.” At the same time you have the perversity of Jeremy Corbyn, the one who was the reluctant Leaver, defending freedom of movement, while you have all these passionate Remainers wanting to suddenly curb migration. It just comes across as confusing to voters.
I think a lot of what motivates the suddenly hawkish on immigration Labour MPs is sounding like they are in touch with the concerns of their constituents. But Labour need to lead on things like this, not try and fit themselves to a growing conservative consensus on a topic. The whole thing can now also be painted by the Momentum crowd as the Blairites simply swaying with the breeze without principles – being people who go with the flow of public opinion, free of root ideology. Far from helping Labour hold onto their core vote, the anti-immigration rhetoric may make even more Labour voters turn away.