Labour’s attitude to immigration will define its future. Its approach to this toxic issue tells us everything we need to know about the party’s attitude not just to immigration, but the economy, the state and the party’s own electoral strategy. Labour knows it got immigration wrong in government, and is now making rather vague apologies; the leadership says it won’t indulge in an arms race but goes on to outline tougher new policies that seem to do just that.
To better understand Labour’s immigration mess we need to go back a bit. Coming out of the 1992 general election Labour was a hollowed-out shell of a party. It had been in the wilderness for 13 years and faced at least another four years in the cold. Survival meant winning next time – at almost any cost. The strategy was to align the party with other winners, notably the US and the globalised free-market economy. Bridging the chasm between new friends and old supporters led to the claim that economic efficiency went hand in hand with social justice. Labour would better share the proceeds of growth.