Chris Bryant is a brainy fellow. He radiates self assurance. He is just the kind of clever-clever type that people long to see taking a pratfall. Today, and over the weekend, he did. The glee of the commentariat is palpable. By common consent, today was a disaster day for Mr Bryant. How did it happen?
There have been complaints all through the summer that Labour seemed to have nothing to say. The Tories have been everywhere, even sending vans into areas with a high concentration of immigrants to tell those who are here illegally to “go home” – but from Labour, scarcely a word.
Mr Bryant, the shadow immigration minister, decided to put that right by delivering a big speech that disavowed “cheap and nasty” anti-immigrant sentiment and praised the work of great immigrants through the centuries, from Simon de Montfort to Winston Churchill (De Montfort was a controversial figure, and Churchill was not an immigrant, although his mother was – but let’s not get picky). His target audience was precisely the unemployed or struggling Britons who feel crowded out of the jobs market by the incomers.
His message to them was not to blame their plight on people who have come to Britain to work for low wages under grim working conditions, but on the “unscrupulous” firms who hire them.
Bryant alleged that some firms aimed their recruitment ads exclusively at foreign nationals, who had to pay their own way to get to the UK and when they arrived were paid less than the minimum wage. “I’ve seen two-bedroom flats turned into pits for nine men, with a 24-hour rota for the beds,” he said. “I’ve seen fast food outlets with a shack for employees to live in – beds in sheds.” He suggested a few ways to deal with these miscreant firms, such as a mandatory register for landlords, and stricter enforcement of the minimum wage.
That much was sensible enough, but Mr Bryant is too ambitious to settle for “sensible”. Having spent this year and last in combat with Rupert Murdoch’s vast media conglomerate, he could not resist taking a swipe at another commercial giant, by briefing out in advance a version of the speech which contained some unflattering remarks about Tesco.
But when attacking an organisation that big, it is not a bad idea to be in command of your facts. If you must accuse them of undercutting wages at a distribution centre in Kent, for example, it is best to be sure that they have a distribution centre in Kent.
Mr Bryant broke that basic rule, and first thing this morning, he had to appear on the BBC’s Today programme to correct the comments he had not yet made in a speech he delivered, in revised form, later the same morning.
It was certainly embarrassing, but those who write off the episode as a complete disaster are possibly missing the point.
After weeks of near total silence, the Labour Party burst on to the airwaves today, at the top of the bulletins, talking about immigration and the problems of being British and unemployed. It was not elegantly done, but it was a start.