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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

The Immigration Thing

Just under a year ago in Liverpool, I remember seeing a group of hard-bitten men in black t-shirts gathering in a dingy pub opposite the Lib Dem conference centre.

At first, I thought they must followers of a heavy metal band or Scouse trade unionists chewing the fat after a march. It was only when I looked closely that I saw they all had 'English Defence League' logos on their shirts, alongside a small Flag of St George. Black shirts indeed.

They advertised their meeting on a pub blackboard outside, just like any other self-help group hiring a room, but funnily enough didn't look that welcoming a bunch. As we hacks all piled over the road to cover the Lib Dems' wrangling over the cuts, the disconnect between mainstream politics and street politics couldn't have felt starker.

One year on, although you'll struggle to find it on the official conference agenda, immigration is becoming one of the hot topics in Liverpool.

On Sunday, Ed Miliband admitted on Marr that Labour 'got it wrong' on transitional arrangments that allowed Poles, Czechs and others to come to the UK.

Today, Ed Balls pointedly included it in his little list of Gordon Brown's failures in Government, admitting "we should have adopted tougher controls on migration from Eastern Europe".

Maurice Glasman, Blue Labour guru and confidant of the Ed Mili circle, has used an interview with Gary Gibbon on the lunchtime fringe to even suggest that EU treaties should be renegotiated to deal with the issue.

Of course, Glasman is no stranger to controversy on immigration and again apologised for his suggestion that Labour should engage with the EDL.

But on the point of substance, many Tory Eurosceps will be delighted that at long last there's someone on the Labour side who sees that renegotiating some elements of EU Treaties could be worthwhile. He revealed that he's been talking to other social democratic parties in Europe to discuss a common approach.

The R-word is still anathema to the Labour leadership of course, but former Communities Secretary Hazel Blears has now also suggested that it's not a bad idea to at least discuss how to be flexible on EU migration rules.

Speaking at the Dods/PoliticsHome fringe, she defended David Goodhart, the ex-Prospect editor and Demos wonk for daring to talk about 'pausing' immigration. Goodhart had come under attack at a Fabian fringe on Sunday for suggesting a cap on immigration and banning Turkey from the EU. (It's worth pointing out that Alan Miliburn was so worried about the issue in 2005 that he considered pushing for a quota to neutralise Michael Howard's policy, but that's another story).

Blears made clear she shared the Goodhart concerns, not least because Labour had for too long seen immigration through what she called the "prism" of multi-cultural, London-centric worldview.

"He {Goodhart] said that for a lot of people in our country, immigration was too high, too fast, their communities changed before their eyes and put strain on public services. I actually agree with him," Ms Blears said.

"I thought he put his finger on a really important issue for the next election and we can't just dance around it. This is how people feel. It's not just the economy, it's cultural as well. It's almost like we're frightened to say it. I think we got this sense that we have got this great melting pot which is London and some of our big cities. But that's not necessarily reflected in other communities.

"We can't have a party that's simply London-centric that looks throught the prism of a very multi-cultural community but also a very middle class community. That isn't the reality for a very many people out there and unless we are prepared to engage and have a proper dialogue around some of these issues, we'll be seen as increasingly irrelevant."

She added that it was worth talking to other EU states about fresh migration rules in a way that didn't need a total reopening of its Treaties.

"Is there at least some basis for having a dialogue with some of the other countries that you get an agreement that means you don't have to unravel those treaties. Everybody's facing those same issues, even some of the A8 countries that got the mobility of Labour are now finding a struggle with that," she said.

But it was when she talked about Polish migrants that my ears pricked up, declaring the voters wanted to see a "something for something" basis for handouts.

"On the doorstep people will tell you all the time that they resent the fact that people come in and get access to housing, they get access to benefit.

"Actually, in terms of access to benefit, if you get child benefit in this country you get it. In Poland, it's totally means tested and much, much less than us. So if we go and work in Poland and don't take our kids with us, we don't get benefits. The Polish people come here, they will get their benefits.

"It's things like that that create a real sense of grievance and justifiably so. Unless your political party is prepared to address that and sort it out then it's that perception of people getting something for nothing that destroys the trust between the politicians and the people."

Shadow Justice Minister Chris Bryant, who was also on our panel, took a different tack (some colleagues say he rolled his eyes in disbelief at some of the things Ms Blears was saying. Sadly I couldn't tell, I was chairing the thing).

He agreed that immigration had been misjudged by Labour at the last election, largely because it wanted to help the business lobby:

"I think we were so obsessed about trying to win the 1992 general election all over again throughout our period in office that our concentration was so often on never shaking the business tree. So some of the decisions we made about the financial services industry and about workers rights actually made the work environment for a lot of white, working class people in this country a pretty insecure place.

"Yes, I'm sure we should have put a points based system in place far sooner than it was, but in my experience of the Rhondda it's not a racist set of views. The white working class vote was not the top of our concerns."

So, there you have it. A former Cabinet minister admitting immigration was too high and too fast and questioning Poles' entitlement to benefits. A current frontbencher admitting the point-system should have been introduced earlier and that the white working classes were ignored. Not one but two policy gurus talking about renegotiating EU Treaties.

Some Conservatives will be intrigued by Labour's new willingness to confront this issue.

But I wonder what the EDL guys will say when they next meet in the pub nearby....?

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