Ben Riley-Smith, Telegraph, December 14, 2014
Labour MPs have been secretly ordered not to campaign on immigration because doing so could cost them the next election, the Telegraph can reveal.
A private strategy document circulated by Labour HQ and seen by this newspaper warns that the bigger immigration becomes as a campaign issue the more votes the party will lose.
MPs are told to focus on “moving the conversation on” if voters express concerns about border controls to topics Labour is stronger on such as healthcare or housing.
They are also urged not to send leaflets on immigration to all voters because it could be “unhelpful” and “risks undermining the broad coalition of support we need to return to government”.
The revelations are a major embarrassment for Ed Miliband, who is expected to tell voters Labour understands their immigration concerns and harden the party’s stance on cheap foreign workers in a major speech on Monday.
Some Labour MPs have reacted with fury over the strategy document, calling it an “April Fools” joke and accusing the leadership of trying to “massage” their relationship with constituents.
The 33-page document, entitled “Campaigning against Ukip”, was produced by the Labour Party and recently distributed to dozens of MPs in danger of losing votes to Ukip alongside detailed constituency maps pinpointing where possible defectors can be found.
The guidance, which was never meant to be made public, shows for the first time the party leadership has accepted Ukip is seriously hurting them in the North and reveals in remarkable detail Labour’s entire election strategy for countering the threat.
Strategists admit some working class Labour voters “feel that the party has left them behind in pursuit of better-educated, middle-class, white-collar voters” and warn that its traditional stronghold in “coalfield communities” is now under threat.
Private party polling, target voters, doorstep messages to be “carefully dropped into conversations” and specific catchphrases to win back disaffected constituents are all detailed in the leaked document.
But perhaps the most damaging revelations concern advice given to Labour MPs about how to approach immigration–an issue the party has been accused of being too soft on in recent years after soaring net migration numbers under New Labour.
The document makes clear that with Ukip-leaning voters, activists should listen to their immigration concerns and outline Labour’s policies for tackling the issue with tightening border controls and limiting access to benefits.
However it also warns MPs that the party loses votes the more “salient” immigration becomes as an election issue and urges them against contacting all constituents on the topic.
“Writing to electors proactively (i.e.: without evidence the elector is concerned about it) about immigration risks undermining the broad coalition of support we need to return to government,” the document says.
Doing so would “inevitably be hitting some people for whom it is unhelpful to raise the salience of immigration as an issue”.
The document notes: “As a general rule, a higher salience for the issue [immigration] does not translate into electoral advantage for us.”
Elsewhere MPs are told: “Immigration is the issue people most often cite when explaining support for Ukip . . . It does not however follow that campaigning on immigration issues and emphasising our policies in our conversations with electors is always the correct response.”
Labour MPs are also urged to focus on “moving the conversation on to issues where we have clear policy” if confronted with concerns about immigration, such as healthcare and housing.
Having the party’s entire strategy for tackling Ukip leaked to the media just five months before the general election is likely to cause fury among the leadership and undermine its chances of success.
Labour MPs have reacted angrily to the document’s suggestion that the best way to deal with the threat from Ukip is not to tackle the issue head-on.
Frank Field, a former welfare minister, said: “I think this must be an April Fools’ Day pack because not campaigning on immigration is exactly what Ukip wants us to do.”
A Labour MP who received the pack but asked not to be named said: “We are trying to massage the relationship between us and the electorate in the hope that they won’t notice that we’ve been weak in this area. It is just a sad state of affair.”
There are other intriguing insights in the document. The Labour voter most likely to defect to Ukip is identified by strategists as a 47- to 66-year-old Yorkshireman who never went to university and is either in “low skilled work” or is “unemployed”.
MPs are advised to characterise Ukip as “More Tory than the Tories” to win back older Labour defectors but play up the party’s NHS policies to sway younger voters unfamiliar with the Thatcher and Major governments.
Candidates are also told personally to telephone possible Ukip switchers within two weeks of identification and follow up with further campaign material. “Votes that can be won (and lost) in the fight against UKIP,” the document warns.
A Labour spokesman said: “This story is nonsense. This is a 33-page document in which the Daily Telegraph is interested in taking only a few lines out of context.”
“This document sets out clearly how candidates and activists will explain our policies on immigration and seek to explain how they fit into an overall vision for a country that works for everyday working people not just a few.
“Today Ed Miliband will deliver his fourth major intervention on immigration and publish our second key election pledge which is also on immigration. This reflects the priority which he and the Labour Party attach to an issue on which the Labour Party and many voters have deep concern.”