Much of the coverage of today’s Immigration Bill has centred around those controversial ‘go home’ vans, now ditched because they only sent one person home. Theresa May told the Commons this afternoon that ‘we won’t be rolling out the vans, they were too much of a blunt instrument’. In response to a question from Keith Vaz, she said:

‘What I said to the right honourable gentleman is I didn’t have a flash of blinding light one day and walk into the Home Office and say, I know, why don’t we do this?’ What I have done is looked at the interim evaluation in relation to the vans. There were some results achieved, but I think politicians should be willing to step up to the plate and say when they think that something hasn’t actually been as good an idea, and I think they were too blunt an instrument, but I think that we should also be absolutely clear about what used to happen under the last government. Under the last government if someone came to the end of their visa, nobody got in touch with them to say that they should no longer be staying here in the UK that is now happening as a result of the changes of the immigration enforcement.’

There’s nothing wrong with tackling illegal immigration: many on the left managed to conflate immigration and illegal immigration in their responses to those vans this summer, when the latter does nothing for those involved in the former and is, as today’s debate in the Commons highlighted, linked closely with modern day slavery. But the vans were not a particularly savvy way of doing this because they provoked a debate about language and memories of a less tolerant time, when they didn’t need to. Had the words ‘go home’ been absent from those posters, they would likely have roused little attention, and if they had, it would have been much easier for ministers to argue that the job of the Home Office is to enforce immigration law.

But this is a debate that has been rehearsed rather a lot in the past few months. What is more interesting is that in spite of what we can now probably dismiss as a comms failure on the part of the Tories, Labour is still on the back foot over immigration. So much so that Yvette Cooper gave a long speech in the Chamber this afternoon about all the things that were wrong with this bill which concluded with this:

‘We will set out amendments giving councils powers of enforcement on the minimum wage, tackling irresponsible agencies, and I hope that the government will support these measures. Mr Speaker this Bill doesn’t do what it claims, some of the measures are sensible, some confused, some of serious concern. It claims to tackle illegal immigration but does nothing of the sort and fails to tackle serious problems. We will not oppose this Bill today as we believe that it should go through to committee stage so we can amend and reform it and use this opportunity to introduce fairer better controls, to deal with this government’s failures and to make immigration work for all.’

So that’s Labour realising that it cannot oppose what is being sold as The Toughest Immigration Bill Ever (although sadly May didn’t play dramatic music or speak in a special deep film trailer voice when introducing its second reading in the Commons this afternoon), because to oppose would mean that Labour isn’t interested in being tough on immigration. This was roughly the position that Labour ended up with on welfare before Ed Miliband sent Liam Byrne packing: Byrne was saying that the benefit cap wasn’t watertight or tough enough, having previously opposed it at various stages. Rachel Reeves took up that mantle by promising that Labour would be tougher than the Tories on benefits.

The difference now is that Cooper has decided on a critical position from the very beginning, and is pushing for the government to support Labour’s ‘tougher’ amendments in an attempt to beat the Tories at their game. Which shows that this is another area where Labour has lost authority: the party feels it has to out-tough its opponents, rather than trying to sell its own beliefs to voters.

Tags: Home Office, illegal immigration, Immigration, Immigration vans, Theresa May, UK politics, Yvette Cooper