Jeremy Corbyn will close the Labour conference on Wednesday by a delivering a highly-anticipated speech on his plans for the party going forward.
However, rather than focusing on a policy that could unite the fragmented party, like fighting Theresa May’s plans for more selective education, the Labour leader is set to declare he has no plans to cut immigration.
He will say: “A Labour government will not offer false promises. We will not sow division or fan the flames of fear. We will instead tackle the real issues of immigration — and make the changes that are needed.”
In one sense, Corbyn’s refusal to promise immigration cuts is admirable as he is remaining loyal to his own principles.
Despite his historic ambivalence towards the EU as a whole, he has long been a defender of the free movement of people and has consistently argued that government should not see to cut the number of migrants coming to the UK.
“He is not concerned about numbers. As long as the consequences of immigration are tackled, it is not an objective to reduce the numbers, to reduce immigration,” his spokesman said at the conference in Liverpool.
But, ultimately, sticking to his principles on the matter over immigration could seriously impede Labour from winning the next general election. That is because the policy of not controlling immigration is deeply unpopular with a massive portion of the votes he needs to win.
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Immigration — specifically immigration levels being too high — was the most pressing concern for Brits heading into the June referendum. A Lord Ashcroft poll published last month said 79% of Brits believed Brexit means the UK cannot continue the free movement of people.
If Labour wants to be a viable government in waiting, it needs to at least talk about immigration in a way that is not outright reluctant to even consider the concerns of the average Brit.
But Corbyn’s policy also puts Labour at risk of losing lots of the support it already has at a time when SNP’s domination north of the border and imminent boundary changes threatens the party with electoral disaster.
Labour is the party of the British working-class but the majority of Britain’s working-class wants to see much tighter restrictions placed on immigration. Labour-held seats in the party’s northern “heartlands” will continue to feel left behind if their grievances go ignored — ironic, given Corbyn’s promise to leave no person or community behind.
This is why Labour MPs have urged the party’s leadership to take a different approach to talking about immigration.
Andy Burnham is set to say “millions of our lifelong supporters voted to leave EU and for change on immigration” when he addresses the conference on Wednesday. At an event Business Insider attended earlier this month, MP Stephen Kinnock said the party must be prepared to at least have a conversation about the issue of immigration. Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves have made the same point.
But this is not to say Labour needs to abandon its manifesto and adopt a UKIP-style immigration policy.
A key part of winning elections is having a good image. Immigration to the UK reached record levels under David Cameron’s premiership yet the Tories are still regarded as much more trustworthy than Labour in dealing with it, according to recent polls.
The opposition needs to prove to the country and its own support that it is willing to talk about immigration and, more importantly, listen to concerns about immigration. Failure to do so will push the party even closer to the brink of electoral suicide.
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