Published on 22 Jun 2012 Sections

Ed Miliband: Labour was wrong on immigration

Labour leader Ed Miliband admits in a speech that the previous government was wrong in allowing so many eastern europeans into the country and then ignoring public concerns over their arrival.

Speaking in London Mr Miliband admitted that the level of low-skilled migration had been too high because the last Labour government had not taken advantage of control measures designed to limit the numbers of immigrants from countries that joined the EU in 2004, such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

Gillian Duffy

And in a reference to the infamous encounter on the election trail between Gordon Brown and Labour voter Gillian Duffy, in which the former prime minister referred to Mrs Duffy as “that bigoted woman” after she raised concerns about immigration, Mr Miliband said: “Worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration, does not make them bigots.”

Conceding that in the past those who had complained about the effects of immigration on local communities had been told “like it or lump it”, Mr Miliband said that rapid influxes of immigrants had led to pressure on housing and schools, downward pressure on wages and friction with local populations.

Promising a “new conversation” on immigration the Labour leader said “we became too disconnected from the concerns of working people.”

Ed Miliband's proposals on immigration:
• UK should take advantage of the maximum level of migration controls when new countries join the EU
• Tougher policing of employers who do not pay the minimum wage
• Laws should be changed to prevent recruitment agencies only dealing with foreign workers

More research

Mr Miliband called for a greater understanding of the sectors which are finding it particularly hard to recruit british workers, proposing that the local jobcentre should be notified of any medium or large employer found to have more than 25 per cent migrant workers so that local skills training could be put in place.

Mr Miliband’s speech was dismissed by the Immigration Minister Damian Green who said:

“Under his leadership, Labour have opposed our aim to get annual net migration down to the tens of thousands, and they have opposed the cap on economic migration, our changes to student visas and our reforms to family visas. They refuse to admit that immigration is too high, and they refuse to say immigration needs to come down.

“If Ed Miliband thinks the national minimum wage is the solution to immigration, he needs to explain why, after introducing the minimum wage, net migration increased by 2.2 million under Labour.

In a recent research paper, economists from the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College found that, while immigration can contribute to the growth of average wages, it also holds back the wages of the least well paid.

The researchers concluded that between 1997-2005: “while the gainers may have outnumbered the losers and the gains may have been positive on average, the losers tend to have been lower down the wage distribution than the gainers.”

Political hot potato

Public opinion polls reflect a long standing aversion to immigration. The Migration Observatory at Oxford University points out that in the government-run citizenship survey for 2009-10, over 75 per cent of respondents said immigration should be either “reduced a lot” (over 50 per cent) or “reduced a little”, and that in a 2007 Ipsos-MORI poll 76 per cent had agreed that immigration should be either much tougher (64 per cent) or stopped altogether (12 per cent).

And the political importance of immigration appears to be growing.

Back in December 1999 fewer than 5 per cent of respondents to an Ipsos-MORI monthly sample named race relations or immigration as the most important issue. Since then it has become one of the most frequently named issues – currently trumped only by the economy – and in a YouGov poll published in April, voters gave the coalition government the worst rating over its performance on immigration than any other policy area.

So are politicians listening? In his speech Mr Miliband noted that “the public feel too often politicians only speak about the issue to close the conversation down”. But with voters rating it so highly, it surely is no surprise that this has become a policy area where the Labour leader is seeking to re-position his party.