Labour leader Ed Miliband has been accused of pandering to UKIP and anti-immigration prejudice with his party political broadcast yesterday evening (6 March 2013).
Mr Miliband claimed in his broadcast message that he favours "diversity", but he then said that "millions of people in this country are concerned about immigration" and on that basis promised to "reduce" the numbers of "low skilled" migrants coming into the country.
He also proposed "maximum transitional controls" on workers from new European Union countries, a reference to scare stories about an unmanageable influx of people from Romania and Bulgaria stirred up by the far right and tabloid newspapers.
In the recent Eastleigh by-election, for example, UKIP suggested to voters that more than half of Bulgarians might come to Britain.
While the Labour leader's call to enforce the minimum wage, encourage language studies and crack down on unscrupulous employers who exploit migrant workers will be welcomed by people who work to support them, the overall tenor of the broadcast has upset those who oppose scapegoating immigrants for country's austerity-driven woes.
Scottish political activist and musician Pat Kane quickly took to Twitter to denounce "dog-whistle immigration crap from Ed Miliband", while controversial comedian Frankie Boyle accused him of using the party political broadcast "to chase the votes of racists."
"By declaring that low-skilled immigration is 'too high', Miliband risks entering a war he cannot win," observed political commentator George Eaton.
Labour MP Diane Abbott asked, "Is Labour tackling immigration? Or just pandering without offering concrete solutions?" It is, she said on Twitter, "Pointless trying to outdo UKIP."
As if to prove the point, the Daily Express newspaper, which has been criticised for running a constant stream of unpleasant anti-immigrant stories, declared that "Labour must never again be trusted on immigration", despite Mr Miliband's "tough talk".
Writing in the News Statesman magazine, Ms Abbott declared yesterday: "Anti-immigrant fervour is actually a proxy for economic discontent and will inevitably rise in a recession. ... Immigrants don't cause low wages; unregulated labour markets and predatory employers do."
Her article, timed ahead of this evening's Party Political Broadcast, was entitled 'There must be no right turn on immigration' and made the case that "there is no path to victory for Labour through the thickets of anti-immigrant politics".
She expressed confidence that "Ed Miliband knows this", but critics say that the Labour leader's comments in the Broadcast suggest that he does not.
Mehdi Hasan, political director of The Huffington Post UK, contested Mr Miliband's claim that "it's not prejudice when people worry about immigration". He responded that "concerns" rather than facts are "what seems to drive the immigration debate (or what passes for a debate) in this country."
Mr Hasan cited an international survey carried out by Transatlantic Trends. Asked to estimate the proportion of foreign-born people living in the UK, the average guess was 29.4 per cent. The true figure, according to OECD data is 10.8 per cent - lower than Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and the USA. When informed of that, the proportion of British respondents thinking the number was "too many" fell.
Rob Ford of Manchester University told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration: "Research shows that the British public generally holds an exaggerated view of the scale and impacts of immigration in the UK, consistently estimating numbers of migrants or asylum seekers in excess of official statistics... In 2002, the average public estimate of migration levels was more than double the actual level."
While Mr Miliband is not a "cynical populist", wrote Mr Hasan today, "wittingly or unwittingly, he and his party continue to operate and communicate within a frame set by the anti-immigrant right. All the talk is of threats, costs and controls, rather than opportunities, benefits and contributions."
Mark Ferguson, writing on Labour List, was also critical: "In the past I’ve spoken in favour of Ed Miliband’s plans to encourage immigrants who don’t speak English to learn the language (because being able to communicate is undoubtedly a good thing)... The same can't be said for Labour’s broader approach to immigration. Simply saying that low-skilled immigration was too high and wringing our hands whilst staring doe eyed at the Express and the Mail isn’t a political strategy or a policy solution."
Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, which has advocated a positive and open approach to migration issues, commented: "Anti-immigration politics in Britain is a downward spiral of prejudice, suspicion, scapegoating, nastiness and misinformation. Mr Miliband would be extremely misguided to doorstep this territory rather than to challenge it.
"Blaming 'foreigners' and low-paid workers from other countries for domestic problems caused by austerity, inequality and injustice is deeply mistaken, and only encourages those who wish to use racist sentiments to foster division and capitalise on it politically.
"Low pay, lack of jobs, labour exploitation, housing shortages, educational disadvantage, inadequate support for communities in transition, regional inequalities and the failure to address the global problems that cause forced people movements - these are the real issues that politicians need to address, rather than dumping them at the door of a minority of people labelled and despised as 'immigrants'.
"As the main political parties enter a discreditable race to compete for anti-immigration votes, it is up to civic groups, churches, charities and those who want to work for a just and welcoming society to develop and advocate alternatives at local, national, regional and global levels," he said.
* We need a positive approach to migration: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17659
* Migration: Why a broader view is needed, by Vaughan Jones. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/12034
* More realism needed on global migration, says think tank: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5616
* 'Are immigration controls moral?', by Vaughan Jones. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/280405immigration
* Labour's shift on immigration: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18117
* Migration news and comment from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/migration