Labour must finally take on Ukip over immigration

Some people think it is right wing to talk about immigration or to want any reform. That's nonsense

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The Independent Online

People feel fed up and let down. And Ukip are exploiting the anger to great effect. That’s the clear message from the by-elections in Heywood and Clacton this week. Labour must not and will not ignore either the anger and the problems people face, or the rise of populist right wing politics. Quite the reverse.

The problems are real and need answers – be it on low pay, immigration, or the NHS. But instead of trying to fix the problems, both Ukip and the Tories are exploiting them with the politics of division, blame and scorn, and with policies that would make things worse. That’s why Labour has to work harder than ever – talking more about all the things people are worried about, setting out more practical answers and giving people hope and optimism for the future. Our answer isn’t to imitate Ukip, it must be to take them and the Tories on.

Too many people feel insecure, pessimistic and powerless, buffeted by globalisation and abandoned by Government. Often they’ve seen their pay or job security squeezed, they are worried about the impact of immigration on their jobs and communities, and they are really troubled about what is happening to the NHS.  Too right, they are demanding change.

For example, we should all be angry about low pay, falling wages and job insecurity. That’s exactly why we need a higher minimum wage, a crackdown on zero hours contracts, more apprenticeships and reforms to the way the economy works. The Tories and Ukip want to cut employment protection – that would make things worse. Labour need to expose them both and campaign loudly for the difference we can make.

And yes we do need to talk much more about immigration. Some people think it is right wing to talk about immigration or to want any reform. That's nonsense. The free market right want a wide open border in the interests of cheap labour, whilst the reactionary right want to build a wall to keep the world out. But neither the right wing politics of exploitation nor the right wing politics of division will ever be right for Britain, for working people, or for Labour.

In a global economy we need international investment and top talent, and for centuries Britain has drawn on the ideas and hard work of those who have come to our country from abroad. But immigration has to be properly controlled and managed and the system has to be fair. Right now it isn’t. That’s why Ed Miliband and I have argued that reforms are needed, and why we’ve changed Labour’s policies on immigration, because we know we got things wrong in Government. We won’t engage in an arms race of rhetoric. Just sensible debate and practical policies that help. In the public meetings I have had up and down the country - in all kinds of communities, north and south, with those whose families have come from abroad as well as those whose local roots stretch back centuries - that's the debate people want to have.

The Government’s policies clearly aren't working. David Cameron’s “no ifs no buts” net migration target is in tatters, people are more anxious than ever, and Ministers have done nothing to stop employers using cheap migration to undercut wages and jobs. Illegal immigration isn’t being tackled and there are growing problems at Calais. Yet the number of international University students who bring billions into Britain has dropped, and vulnerable Syrian refugees still aren’t being helped. It’s the worst of all worlds.

So we need workable reforms. For a start Labour wants stronger border controls to stop illegal immigration and enforce visas. We are the only party calling for a serious crackdown on dodgy firms who exploit immigration to cut wages and jobs, with new laws to outlaw exploitation, stronger action on trafficking and better enforcement too. We need different controls and targets for different kinds of immigration – so that we can get top University students and help those fleeing persecution, whilst reducing low skilled migration and strengthening action against abuse. And we need reform in Europe – so employment rules are fair, people contribute rather than claim benefit, and foreign criminals can be excluded or deported. That’s fair movement not free movement.

Yet Ukip, for all their rhetoric, would make many of the problems worse. They'd make it harder outside Europe to get France to stop illegal immigration at Calais, harder to deport foreign criminals back to Europe because they want to ditch the European Arrest Warrant, and their hostility to employment rights would make it harder to stop employers exploiting immigration to undercut local pay.

And their Thatcherite approach to everything from top tax cuts to the privatisation of the National Health Service would make working people more insecure not less. Five more years of the Tories would be deeply damaging for Britain and for working people. But five years of the kinds of Tory-UKIP coalition Nigel Farage says he wants would be even worse.

But we can’t win the argument if we don’t talk about the problems people have or if we’re not prepared to take Ukip and the Tories on – be it on jobs, insecurity, immigration, our NHS, reforming failing politics or giving people more power over their lives and communities.

Labour has to work hard to respond to the challenge. Not just for the votes we want to win back, but because of the kind of country we want to be – a fairer nation where everyone shares in rising prosperity, no one is left behind, and we can feel optimistic about our future. And also patriotic and proud of who we are, outward looking and at ease with the world.

Yvette Cooper is the Shadow Home Secretary