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Why Labour is losing the immigration debate

Confronted with Ukip’s scaremongering, the party vacillates

In just over a month, after an extraordinary campaign, voters will go to the polls at the European election. Extraordinary because, when it comes to the central contest between the two parties that most polls have in first and second place – Labour and Ukip – Labour has been wholly absent.

Yes, there have been events, announcements and doors knocked, but almost nothing that directly challenges the politics of division peddled by Ukip. For example, in March, Ed Miliband mounted his biggest intervention to date on Europe, yet avoided any mention of Labour’s closest challenger. It’s as if Nigel Farage has become Labour’s Voldemort – he whose name cannot be mentioned. The reason is simple: immigration.

When confronted with Ukip’s scaremongering about European immigration, Labour vacillates. Instead of making a clear case on the benefits of immigration for Britain, Labour spokespeople tie themselves up in knots of apologia.

Last week, Yvette Cooper gave a typically convoluted Labour speech on the topic. There was the mandatory apology for past immigration from Eastern Europe, an acknowledgement of the contribution from some migrants, such as international students, and a pledge to crack down on unscrupulous employers who fail to pay the minimum wage. The latter points are valid but the speech failed to make the single most important argument on migration: that immigrants put more into Britain than they take out.

Their net contribution – equivalent to more than 4p on the basic rate of income tax, according to calculations  by the Organisation for Economic  Co-operation and Development – helps fund our public services, cuts the deficit and reduces the pressure for deeper cuts or higher tax rises. This is the keystone of the case for migration. It rebuts Ukip’s central charge on the costs of migration. Without it, Labour cedes the argument to Ukip and critically undermines its own case for Europe.

Labour has just hired the Obama guru David Axelrod to advise the party on its campaign approach. One of his first tasks should be to make clear to Ed Miliband that Labour needs directly to confront Britain’s own Tea Party – Ukip – just as Obama has in the States. It is now impossible to win an argument for Britain in Europe without first demonstrating how we benefit from having Europeans in Britain.

As election day approaches, the tragedy for Labour is that the one British politician who seems to understand this is Nick Clegg. The Liberal Democrat leader has been vilified and sneered at for taking on Farage in those debates, but at least he was prepared to make the case. The polls might have gone against Clegg, but what do progressives expect when no one else has had the courage to take on the Ukip leader. Battles don’t win themselves; they require politicians prepared to fight for what they believe in. I’ve spent much of my political life fighting Lib Dems. But, on this issue, I agree with Nick.

Barbara Roche is the chair of the Migration Matters Trust.