In response to an overwhelming lack of public demand, we return to our award for the person who’s annoyed us most during the past month…
‘The government needs to be straight with people on its immigration policy, working for stronger border controls, strong controls on immigration and tough action on illegal immigration.’
– Yvette Cooper (2012)
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Yvette Cooper’s contribution to the Windrush scandal last month – she was angry with Theresa May in the Commons, and savaged Amber Rudd in the Home Affairs Committee – got her a storming good press. If only, many said, she were the Labour leader, how far ahead would her party be in the polls?
There were dissenting voices, mind you, including that of Owen Jones (a previous recipient of this honour), who attacked the media for ‘lauding Yvette Cooper for sticking it to Theresa May over immigration, without scrutinizing how she spent years trying to outflank the Tories on being tough on immigration’.
Well, Jones having a dig at Cooper is hardly front-page news. Technically, they’re members of the same party, but you’d have difficulty explaining that to anyone who wasn’t already a comrade. It’s still worth asking, though: does the Jones Boy have a point here?
To answer that, we have to go back to the New Labour years, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were riding high – and so was immigration. First, there was a massive increase in the numbers arriving from outside Europe, followed by the influx from Eastern Europe. In 1997, when Blair was first elected, net migration to the UK was 48,000; within two years that had tripled, and by 2007, it was up to 273,000.
Cooper was a coming star of those governments, and – as the housing minister – was one of those whose brief was affected by the rise. But she had little to say on the subject, save for mouthing the usual platitudes: ‘Immigration is vital to the economy and brings important benefits.’
The big shift came in opposition, when Ed Miliband appointed her as shadow home secretary. These were the years of the rise of UKIP, and everyone was getting worried.
In the 2005 general election, UKIP had got 600,000 votes, rising in 2010 to 900,000. On neither occasion, of course, did the party get an MP, but it was comfortably in fourth place both times – and that had been under the anonymous leadership of, respectively, Roger Knapman and Malcolm Pearson (Baron Pearson of Rannoch, as you know him). The base was there to build on, and the conditions were favourable: the Liberal Democrats were fast losing support, now that they were in a coalition government, and the BNP were a busted flush. UKIP were the new protest vote and, with the return in September 2010 of Nigel Farage as leader, they surged ahead, reaching an extraordinary peak when they won the European Parliament elections in 2014, with nearly 4.4 million votes.
Both major parties ran scared in the face of this phenomenon. The issue, it was assumed, was the electorate’s dislike of immigration, which had polled as the second biggest concern of electors in 2010. So David Cameron set a ludicrously implausible target of reducing immigration to ‘the tens of thousands’, and appointed Theresa May as home secretary, expecting her to talk tough and maybe to be a little bit nasty.
Labour had a much steeper hill to climb, and were further handicapped by Gordon Brown’s inept handling of the issue, from purloining the BNP slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’, through to his denunciation of Gillian Duffy as a ‘bigoted woman’. Worse yet, it was increasingly believed that the cause of the discontent was the legacy of the New Labour government itself.
And so Ed Miliband’s Labour, with Cooper to the fore, began a desperate attempt to neutralize the party’s terrible polling on immigration. But since talking about immigration itself might be deemed, you know, a bit on the racist side, the discussion was framed in terms of illegal immigration, even though the public concern was by now primarily about legal migration from the EU.
Cooper began by attacking the Coalition government’s policy and practice. Public spending cuts were jeopardizing the work of the UK Border Agency, she said in 2011, and there was ‘a big gap between the government’s rhetoric and reality on immigration’. She also said that New Labour had made a mistake in not introducing a points-based policy from the outset.
But this made no difference to public perception, so in 2012, the stakes were raised. ‘If people come to this country they should contribute and not be a burden on public funds,’ thundered Cooper, adopting the language of UKIP.
And she apologized for New Labour. ‘In government we didn’t do enough to address people’s concerns on immigration,’ she said:
Immigration brings pressures and anxieties as well as important economic and cultural benefits. Yet Labour wasn’t discussing the impact people felt in their lives. Nor did we look at the unequal consequences of who benefited and who lost out. We’ve heard that message loud and clear, and Labour needs to change as a result.
Her repudiation of New Labour’s record prompted an angry response from the Labour peer Meghdad Desai (Baron Desai of St Clement Danes, as you know him), who noted sardonically that her comments came in the week that marked the centenary of Enoch Powell’s birth.
The line that was adopted by the party leadership was that immigration was undercutting wages, and that therefore there were two groups of victim: exploited immigrants and jobless natives.
‘We do want stronger controls on new European countries in future,’ said Cooper in 2014, ‘but we also need action on zero-hours contracts, agencies only recruiting from abroad, and the undercutting of the minimum wage.’ And still, she insisted, the problem was that the Tories were proving weak on the issue: ‘the government needs to do more to address people’s legitimate concerns.’
This was also the year that – political trainspotters will recall – Ed Miliband forgot to mention the issue of immigration altogether in his conference speech, and then tried to claw back lost ground by promising that an incoming Labour government would introduce legislation to curb immigration in its first Queen’s Speech.
Meanwhile the 2014 Immigration Act – the one that led to the current problems – was going through Parliament, with the shadow home secretary making none of the running. The official Labour position was a principled abstention.
The 2015 manifesto had a handful of policies to offer, few of which seemed particularly serious. There would be 1,000 new border staff (though according to Cooper there had been 5,000 jobs cut in the first year of the Coalition). There would be more foreign criminals deported, a tightening of short-term student visas, a ban on recruitment agencies hiring only from overseas, and a regulation to stop immigrants from claiming benefits ‘for at least two years’. Further: ‘People working in public services, in public facing roles, will be required to speak English.’
None of it seemed likely to make much difference to immigration levels. But all seemed intended to reinforce the Right’s agenda: scroungers and criminals are here illegally – and they don’t even speak the language.
Did Miliband and Cooper believe the stuff they were saying? Well, it’s possible, but – insofar as they noticed any of this – the electorate didn’t believe that they believed it. In the same way that they didn’t believe Neil Kinnock had renounced unilateralism in the 1980s. Or that Jeremy Corbyn has really discovered his true self as the copper’s chum, resolved to increase police spending.
It all seemed so half-hearted, so mealy mouthed. The essential question of why immigration had been encouraged was never addressed. Was it really true, as Blair’s former speechwriter Andrew Neather once claimed, that it was intended ‘to rub the right’s noses in diversity’? If not that, then what? What was Cooper actually apologizing for?
None of it worked, and none of it did much for the tone of political debate. Labour were still seen as being soft on immigration by those for whom this was a concern. And the dog-whistle rhetoric of ‘legitimate concerns’ did nothing to challenge UKIP.
Oddly, immigration is the one policy area where New Labour and Corbyn’s Labour have been indistinguishable. Both share the view that immigration is A Good Thing and that anyone who disagrees is probably a racist. It’s just that in its Milibandian after-life, New Labour tried tacking with the wind, while the remnants of the London Left (Abbott, McDonnell, Corbyn) carried on regardless, since they didn’t mind being unpopular.
These days, of course, Cooper is back on track, bossing the moral high ground, and doing rather well in attacking the Tories. Given how few others on her side are having any impact at all (with the honourable exceptions of Abbott and David Lammy on this issue), her contribution is worth celebrating. So Owen Jones, as an influential voice within Labour, isn’t really doing the party any favours by attacking her.
But we have no such constraints. Being neither influential nor a Labour organ, we can say that the performance of Miliband and Cooper was craven and ineffectual, and gave a free pass to May to introduce the very legislation that has so adversely affected British citizens.
Which is why we’re naming Yvette Cooper as our Morgan of the Month for April, in belated recognition of her contribution to the ‘hostile environment’.