It is not often that political parties admit to having made mistakes, and this particular mea culpa has been a long time coming. But in an opinion piece for The Times today, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, says that the Labour government was wrong not to have recognised sooner that immigration needed to be controlled. She writes:
We should have brought the points-based system in earlier to restrict low-skilled migration. And we should have adopted transitional controls for Eastern Europe.
This is an important moment, since Labour figures have always privately acknowledged that they cannot really take the Home Office to task on its immigration reforms until they have publicly addressed their own historical mistakes in this area (although Jonathan Portes, an economist who worked as a civil servant in Downing St at the time, would argue that no such apology is necessary). Ed Miliband is due to announce a new policy approach on immigration tomorrow, and it seems that a certain amount of self-punishment is required in the run-up. Cooper says candidly in her article that this is not the “easiest subject” for Labour to discuss, and suggests that the party lost touch with the electorate’s anxieties about the effect that migration would have on jobs and communities:
In government we didn’t do enough to address people’s concerns on immigration. By the election, we had lost the argument — people felt that the system was unfair and politicians weren’t listening. We need to change.
The Conservatives may well seek to make political capital out of Labour’s admissions, but they have their own immigration questions to battle with today.
Newsnight reported last night that David Willetts, the universities minister, is pushing the Home Office to exempt international students from the net migration target. This is presumably an attempt to prevent the UK’s £15bn-a-year education exports from suffering as the Home Office ramps up its efforts to cut net migration from over 250,000, where it stands now, to less than 100,000 in 2015.
Jo Johnson, the Tory MP, has already argued this point in the FT a month ago, and Lady Valentine, the crossbench peer, has been making it for years. However, Damian Green, the immigration minister, seems staunchly against any such move. He told Newsnight that he could not simply leave students out of the net migration calculation because:
The UN definition of an immigrant is someone who comes and lives in another country for a year or more.
He added that government cannot “redefine” its way out of a “real problem” and that the student visa was the “biggest single loophole “in the previous government’s immigration system. Strangely enough, that is one thing Yvette Cooper doesn’t take the blame for.