Despite the headline-grabbing row with Tesco and Next, shadow Immigration Minister Chris Bryant made a good speech on immigration today - the trouble is, could anyone hear what he was saying?
August 12, 2013 BY Ruth Grove-White
Today's immigration speech by shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant was billed as an opportunity to hear Labour's latest views on immigration policy, in particular on economic migration. But although the media row over the speech today has made it difficult to hear what Labour is trying to say, Bryant's speech did lay out some new thinking which should be welcomed.
You can see why Chris Bryant decided to give an immigration speech now. The quiet summer season should have allowed the opposition to clearly lay out some fresh thinking on immigration. The speech follows a couple of weeks in which the government has been heavily criticised over the 'racist vans' row and received widespread accusations of racial profiling in immigration enforcement actions. And research published by Operation Black Vote yesterday has emphasised the importance of ethnic minority voters at the next election, offering up another opportunity to Labour to make a pitch to these voters on issues like race and immigration. So far, so good - the stage was set.
However, a bungled advance briefing of Bryant's immigration speech to the media yesterday led to the speech being all but derailed before it had even been delivered. Media coverage today has focused on Bryant's apparent accusation that retailers Tesco and Next were 'unscrupulous employers' in their recruitment practices around migrant workers. Rather than staking out the terms of the debate as he had hoped, Chris Bryant has been on the back-foot all day.
It was a shame, because there was more to Bryant's speech than the Tesco/Next row. This speech was particularly interesting from an opposition which has been reluctant to be drawn off relatively safe terrain on immigration. Bryant laid out a broad critique of the coalition government's current approach, putting the boot into the net migration target and pointing to the damage to the higher education sector as a result of restrictions on international students. He criticised 'cheap and nasty gimmicks' like the 'go-home vans' , and the coalition's proposed £3000 bond for short-term visitors, as well as Theresa May's bureaucratic headaches over various Home Office backlogs.
Even the aspect of Bryant's speech which has been the focus of press coverage today - issues faced by low-paid migrant workers at the hands of 'unscrupulous employers' - should be viewed as a welcome attempt to cast the spotlight on an area that the coalition government has singularly failed to address. The speech has generated some debate today about recruitment and employment conditions for migrant workers in low paid sectors such as care, cleaning, hospitality and construction - this is all helpful. And although Bryant has back-pedalled on his 'naming and shaming' of Tesco and Next, the baton was taken up today by a Tesco worker who has given his own critique of some employment practices there, ensuring that this story will continue to develop.
Chris Bryant will no doubt be glad when today is over. But although it has clearly not been a good day, the Labour frontbench should not be scared away from strengthening an alternative vision on immigration.
As we move towards the pre-2015 electioneering in earnest, we need opposition parties that can stake out what is wrong with an overwhelmingly hostile debate on immigration and policies aimed at preventing people from coming at any cost, and which can put forward alternative proposals of their own. When the dust has settled from this latest media storm in a teacup, we hope that Bryant's speech will have moved us at least a little further in that direction.