THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE: Why is a Labour government dancing to Mr Howard's tunes on immigration?

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Forward, not back. Labour's election strategists are clear about one point. They are moving ahead, and those that oppose them are backward looking. Too timid to establish an ideological divide, they hail a chronological split. Once it was old versus new Labour. Now they highlight a division between those who support moving forward versus those who look to the past.

When Gordon Brown was shunted to the sidelines of the pre-election campaign, the word went out from the arch Blairites: That's it, we are free to fight a radical election, we are liberated from Brownite caution. Yet Labour's campaign so far makes those that were conducted in 1997 and 2001 seem like models of daring radicalism. After nearly two terms of government, the party's strategists allow the Conservatives to set the terms of the debate, daring only to challenge the workability of Michael Howard's policies, not the values that underpin them.

Yesterday, it was the turn of the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, to dance to Mr Howard's tunes. The Conservative leader has announced a points system to determine whether migrants will be allowed into the country. When Mr Howard made the announcement a fortnight ago, there was a fair amount of criticism even in the Conservative media. The Spectator, edited by a Conservative MP, dared to point out that in the relatively buoyant British economy the country needed more immigrants rather than fewer. The more intelligent right-wing newspapers also highlighted the misleading conflation of asylum policies and those relating to immigration.

So how do the bold Labour strategists respond? They also adopt a points system and conflate the two separate issues of asylum and immigration. Of course, if voters pay attention to Mr Clarke's arguments they would note a marked distinction. Labour rejects the absurd proposal from the Conservatives to establish an annual quota, an inflexible policy that would take inadequate account of changing external circumstances. In his statement to MPs yesterday afternoon, Mr Clarke made clear that there were differences between most immigrants and illegal asylum-seekers, which should be a statement of the obvious but needs reiteration in the current frenzied climate. A succession of Labour MPs also rose to make the distinction. Mr Clarke agreed with them, suggesting a little disingenuously that this was what his statement was all about. Mr Clarke also highlighted the need for international co-operation rather than what he called a "fortress Britain" implied by the Conservatives' policies.

The adversarial nature of the Commons tends to bring out the more radical side of ministers. Mr Blair can sound occasionally like a rabid socialist when facing rows of Conservatives with cheering Labour MPs behind him. But who apart from MPs and political columnists were there to hear Mr Clarke's full speech to the Commons? The headlines and the soundbites convey the single message: this government is getting tough on foreigners, and the only difference between the two parties' policies is one of practicality.

The broader and wholly counter-productive message implies that immigration is a burden rather than an opportunity. No doubt that Labour's polls and focus groups suggest that voters confuse asylum and immigration and are in a state of furious alarm about both. But these intimidating surveys expose the weakness of the New Labour strategy. Since coming to power in 1997, ministers have sought to reassure the partly irrational fears of the voters. For nearly eight years, Home Office ministers have sweated over new initiatives and legislation relating to asylum and immigration. After all their toil, voters are more worried than ever. Perceptions will not change when ministers pop up every six months affecting a profound alarm at front-page reports on asylum and immigration. Ministers convey a sense of alarm to show that they are in touch with the voters' worries. Sometimes they are too in touch.

Exactly a year ago, the former home secretary, David Blunkett, announced new constraints on immigrants coming into Britain from the enlarged EU. The aim was to reassure voters that their fears were being addressed. Here was a chance to highlight the advantages of being a leading member of an enlarged EU and the related arrival of migrants ready to meet the demand for certain types of work. Instead, we got a statement from Mr Blunkett that was roughly along these lines: We know you are worried about Polish window cleaners swarming into this country. So are we!

The tone of the announcement conveyed a sense of another wretched obstacle to overcome. In reality, the authoritative and detailed Home Office research had concluded that immigration in an enlarged EU would benefit the British economy and that, before very long, Britons would be heading for some of the Eastern European countries in search of work.

This brings us to the other problem with Mr Clarke's statement. It seems more dramatic than it really is. His points system will apply only to a relatively small number of workers from non-EU countries. Presumably most workers from these countries will acquire the required number of points to work in areas where there is a big demand for labour. For now, Mr Clarke places a distorting focus on the importance of skilled migrants, ignoring the huge demand for unskilled work. When did someone born in this country last serve you a cup of coffee? I suspect that the Treasury has been looking at the details of Mr Clarke's proposals with some concern about the impact on the economy. Like some of the Government's other five-year plans, expect refinements when the election is safely out of the way even if Gordon Brown is no longer Chancellor.

Britain's high employment and relatively buoyant economy is the rosy context that has created the need for migrants. Potentially, there was an alternative positive message: economic success, the demand for labour being met by carefully monitored migrants from other countries. Instead Mr Clarke feels compelled to get his stick out.

It is far too late to do very much about the state of the debate on asylum and immigration. Immediate pre-election periods are not the time to challenge prejudices, especially with the frenzied reports from some newspapers. Senior Labour insiders tell me that they regard parts of the media as the opposition and are getting the negatives in first, blocking off any space for the Conservatives in the issues where they still poll fairly well. There are grounds for such a strategy with polling day only months away.

But there are times between elections when governments with big majorities have the political space to sway public opinion. Instead, this government tends to implement substantial progressive policies quietly and scream about relatively small policies that seek to reassure newspapers and voters on the right. The defensive approach wins elections, but on sensitive policy fronts it fails to change minds. Only when voters change their minds will it become possible to move forward, not back, on immigration and asylum.