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Labour ‘was wrong on immigration’

Ed MilibandThe Labour leader will say people who worry about immigration are not “bigots”

Labour badly mishandled the issue of immigration in government, Ed Miliband is expected to say.

In a speech later, Mr Miliband will say his party “got it wrong” when it allowed uncontrolled immigration from new EU states in 2004.

Mr Miliband will also say his party ignored those who did not benefit from the big increases in immigration.

A future Labour government, he will claim, would limit labour market access to workers from new EU states.

Following Labour’s defeat at the 2010 general election, a number of candidates in the Labour leadership race – including Mr Miliband – cited immigration as an area where Labour had failed to connect with voters.

Mr Miliband, who has since said the party lost trust on the issue, is expected to spell out his views further in a speech at the IPPR think tank.

‘Not bigots’

The Labour leader will defend the economic, social and cultural benefits of immigration, but accept his party did not always listen to people’s concerns.

In a direct reference to an incident during the 2010 election campaign, when Gordon Brown was caught on a microphone dismissing a voter who had raised the issue as “bigoted”, Mr Miliband will say voters have legitimate fears.

“Worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration, does not make them bigots. Not in any way. They are anxious about the future,” he will argue.

He will add that promising “British jobs for British workers”, another reference to a phrase used by Mr Brown, is not credible – but promising a level playing field for British workers is.

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Two incidents encapsulated what many saw as the Labour government’s failure to “get” why so many people were worried about immigration.

In 2007 Gordon Brown promised “British jobs for British workers”. It was an impossible promise to keep, with the free movement of people within the European Union.

Mr Brown then famously described a pensioner from Rochdale, Gillian Duffy, as a “bigot” after she raised immigration with him during the general election campaign.

Ed Miliband will acknowledge Labour got it wrong and in so doing alienated some of their core supporters. Expect him to take this message to key seats he will need to win back for Labour if he is ever to be prime minister.

Acknowledging the last Labour government’s failure on immigration, he will say: “It was a mistake not to impose transitional controls on accession from Eastern European countries. We severely underestimated the number of people who would come here. We were dazzled by globalisation and too sanguine about its price.

“By focusing exclusively on immigration’s impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – and the people being squeezed in the middle who were losing out. We became disconnected from the concerns of working people.”

Mr Miliband will talk less about how to control borders and more about the impact of immigration on people’s daily lives and the labour market.

“If we are to address people’s concerns, Labour must change its approach to immigration. But we will only be able to answer people’s concerns on immigration if we change our economy too,” he will say.

The Labour leader is expected to say there is “nothing wrong with anyone employing Polish builders, Swedish childminders or French chefs”.

But, he will add: “The problem we need to address is in those areas and sectors of the economy where local talent is locked out of opportunity.

‘Low-wage labour’

“The idea that in core sectors of our economy, industries like construction or agriculture, you can get recruitment agencies who boast all their workers are Polish or denigrate the talents who are living locally, is deeply wrong.”

He will promise new measures to force medium and large employers to declare if they employ more than 25% of foreign workers.

Under a future Labour government, overseas-only employment agencies would be banned and an early-warning system, run by the Migration Advisory Council, would be introduced to highlight areas where the workforce is “dominated by low-wage labour from other countries”.

The Labour leader will say action is required to identify where British jobseekers need better training and legislation on the minimum wage should be more strictly enforced, with a doubling of the fine from £5,000 to £10,000 for those who break the law.

Writing in The Times on Thursday, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said immigration was not the “easiest subject” for Labour.

“In government we didn’t do enough to address people’s concerns on immigration. By the election, we had lost the argument – people felt that the system was unfair and politicians weren’t listening. We need to change,” she wrote.

Responding to the article, Migration Watch UK, a think-tank which campaigns for tighter immigration controls, said it was “music to our ears”.

“But it is a bit rich coming from a party which, when in government, threw open the doors of Britain to three and a half million foreign immigrants with total contempt for public opinion,” the group said.

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