UK Politics

Miliband: People 'lost trust' in Labour on immigration

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Media captionNick Robinson follows Ed Miliband on the campaign trail in Gravesend

Past errors in immigration policy contributed to voters in the south of England "losing trust" in Labour, Ed Miliband has acknowledged.

The opposition leader told the BBC the last government had "got it wrong" on the issue in terms of underestimating migrant numbers and their impact on wages and housing in parts of the UK.

Mr Miliband is campaigning ahead of English council elections on 5 May.

The Conservatives said the comments would "ring hollow" with the public.

The prime minister has said it is the coalition's "ambition" to reduce net migration levels from more than 200,000 to the "tens of thousands", although his approach has been criticised by Lib Dem coalition colleague Vince Cable, who says the target is not official government policy.

During a campaign trip to Gravesend, Mr Miliband was asked by BBC political editor Nick Robinson why Labour had suffered such a drop in support in southern England at last year's general election.

"I think the problem is that we lost trust and we lost touch particularly in the south of England," he said. "I think living standards is a big part of it, immigration is a big part of it. I think maybe a combination of those two issues - most importantly."

Wage pressure

Mr Miliband criticised Labour's record during last year's party leadership contest, saying it had not addressed people's concerns about the social and economic impact of immigration on communities and did not appear to be "on the side" of those affected.

Lord Glasman, the Labour leader's former speechwriter, argued recently that the Labour government lied to people about levels of economic migration and illegal immigration during its years in power and that this had resulted in a "massive rupture of trust" with sections of the electorate.

Responding to this accusation, Mr Miliband said: "I don't think we lied but I do think we got it wrong in a number of respects".

He added: "I think that, first of all, we clearly underestimated the number of people coming in from Poland and that had more of an effect therefore than we would otherwise have thought.

"And secondly, I think there is this really important issue about people coming into the country and the pressure on people's wages.

"People are not prejudiced but people say to me 'look I am worried about the pressure on my wages of people coming into this country. I am worried about what it does to housing supply.' All of those issues.

"Now some of that is real and some of it is not but I think you have to address not just tough immigration policy but underlying issues as well."

'Talking tough'

Mr Cameron has suggested Labour "helped inflame the debate" over the issue while in power by "talking tough" about reducing immigration but not doing anything about it - thereby giving the impression they were not heeding public concerns.

In a speech last week - the tone of which Business Secretary Vince Cable criticised as "very unwise" - Mr Cameron said a cap on non-EU migrants and other controls were working and the UK needed "good immigration rather than mass immigration".

The prime minister rejected Mr Cable's claim that he was electioneering in the speech, in which he said communities had been affected by incomers unable to speak English and unwilling to integrate, he argued, creating "a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods".

Mr Miliband said Labour had introduced a new system to regulate the number of migrants entering the UK, while in office, but had failed to appreciate how the wages of low-skilled British workers would be squeezed as a result.

"We were still saying let's have flexible labour markets, maximum flexibility at work, and that was causing problems for people and that's why we need to rethink," he told Nick Robinson.

Labour is reconsidering its approach on immigration as part of a root-and-branch review of policy launched soon after Mr Miliband's election.

The opposition leader has called on the government to get young people into work and to build more homes - problems which he believes are helping to fuel concerns over levels of immigration.

"I think the thing this government is getting wrong on immigration is that they have got big promises which I do not think are going to be matched by reality," he added. "But they are not dealing with those underlying economic issues which I think caused a lot of the concern people had."

But immigration minister Damian Green said only the coalition government had a "credible" plan to reduce annual net migration - the difference between the number of people entering the UK and those leaving - to the levels seen 20 years ago.

"Ed Miliband's partial apology will ring hollow with the public after Labour let immigration get out of control," he said. "As long as they oppose every government measure to bring down immigration, Ed Miliband will have no credibility at all."

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