The Labour leader has insisted the party has policies that will address voters’ concerns about immigration, after a leaked internal document admitted it was vulnerable to Ukip on the issue.
Ed Miliband said in a speech on Monday that a Labour government would end the “exploitation” of migrant workers, as a way of reassuring local people their pay and conditions would not be undercut.
But the event was overshadowed by the leaking of a party document admitting that in the run-up to next year’s general election, the more talk there was of immigration, the better Ukip would fare.
The private strategy document circulated by Labour HQ urged prospective MPs to “face the issue of immigration directly with Ukip supporters” and set out Labour policy clearly.
But it also advised campaigners to “move the conversation on” if voters wanted to discuss the subject and focus instead on areas such as housing and the NHS where Labour has stronger policies.
Supporters were also urged not to send out leaflets on immigration because it could be “unhelpful” and risked “undermining the broad coalition of support we need to return to government”.
Speaking in a lengthy question-and-answer session after his speech, Mr Miliband tried to dismiss the document as “not very well-drafted language out of context”, while his aides said he had not signed off the paper.
He said he had changed Labour’s policies on immigration and had addressed the subject directly in various ways.
But Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader, said Labour was giving “contradictory signals” on big questions, including immigration.
Rachel Reeves, shadow work and pensions secretary, said it would crack down on “rogue employers” of migrants and tighten border controls so people were counted when they entered and left the country.
She said it was right for Labour to concentrate on issues raised by voters, rather than inflaming concerns about immigration by raising the profile of the subject.
Mr Miliband failed to mention immigration in his Labour conference speech in September. He said later that he forgot to read out that section, along with a section on the deficit.
He set out his party’s plans to tackle the deficit last week and Monday’s speech was supposed to clear the decks for a 2015 focus on the NHS and the cost of living.
He told his audience: “We won’t offer false solutions like Ukip: leaving the EU would be a disaster for jobs, businesses and families.”
While the coalition tried and failed to cap immigration, Mr Miliband has tried a different tack: targeting unscrupulous employers.
A new law would create legal definitions of different forms of exploitation.
Evidence would have to be provided that abuse of power had occurred and that migrants were employed on significantly different terms from locals.