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Last updated: May 27, 2014 3:21 pm
Ed Miliband admitted in a speech on Tuesday that the previous New Labour government had failed to address people’s concerns about growing immigration and the plight of “ordinary working people”.
But he firmly rejected calls to back an in-out referendum on EU membership if Labour wins the next election.
Speaking in Thurrock, Essex, where his party lost control of the local council after a surge of support for the UK Independence party, the Labour leader promised that immigration would be “properly managed” if he won the next general election.
“It is not prejudiced to worry about immigration, it is understandable,” he said.
But he attacked Ukip’s “simple” explanation of Britain’s problems. “They have an apparently simple solution: to get out of the EU. That is not the answer for our country, this will never be Labour’s mission or policy under my leadership,” he said.
However, Mr Miliband insisted he had changed Labour’s position on immigration since 2010. A Labour government would tackle the undercutting of wages, ensure that people in public services spoke English and “have controls” when people arrive in the country, he said.
Labour has also promised to increase the time new arrivals have to wait to be eligible for benefits from three months to six months.
Mr Miliband, who was energy secretary in Gordon Brown’s cabinet in the lead-up to the last general election, praised the last government for investing in schools and hospitals – but admitted that New Labour had failed to appreciate the growing pressure on some families.
“Our embrace of openness made some people feel we didn’t understand the pressures immigration put on them,” he said. “Our embrace of economic change and our determination to do right by the very poorest led people to believe we didn’t care enough about ordinary working people.”
The speech came just hours after Tony Blair urged Mr Miliband to resist pressure to shift Labour’s stance on Europe and immigration in the wake of Ukip’s electoral victory, saying this would only “confuse” party supporters.
The former Labour prime minister, who won three general elections for the party, attacked Ukip for its “stop the world I want to get off” mindset, saying: “Beneath the Ukip façade is something pretty nasty and regressive.”
He urged Mr Miliband to stand up to the insurgent anti-Brussels party and “take them on” after they came ahead of the three main parties in the European elections.
There is a large faction within Labour that believes Mr Miliband should offer a straight in-out referendum on EU membership to rebut accusations that he is oblivious to public sentiment on the issue.
Keith Vaz, chair of the home affairs select committee, has called on Mr Miliband to announce Labour backing for an EU referendum at the party’s autumn conference. But two former cabinet ministers wrote in Tuesday’s Times that the party should not enter an “unseemly arms race” on immigration.
Alan Milburn and Lord Hutton urged Mr Miliband to make the positive case for managed immigration to try to win business support. It would be a mistake to be drawn into a “Dutch auction of . . . ever tighter immigration controls”, they said.
Labour’s current position is that a referendum is only needed when there is a significant treaty change transferring further powers to Brussels.
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