The dalits of poor Britain hate immigration, not immigrants. When will we get that?

by Kevin Meagher

Teachers at my school used to try and gee-up indolent pupils by telling them they would end up picking-out burnt cornflakes on the Kellogg’s production line if they didn’t get their acts together.

This warning often fell on deaf ears, and a strong back or willingness to work unsocial hours still pretty much guaranteed you a job anyway. Okay, not a great job, but you could stand there all day, bent over a factory conveyor-belt scouring for errant pieces of breakfast cereal, or lump heavy goods around a dockside or building site. Or perhaps join-up and see the world. You could, in short, earn a living, with or without qualifications.

There was a level of total educational failure we could tolerate as a country and still mop-up the consequences in the foothills of the labour market afterwards. And for those fulfilling these unfulfilling roles, the reward of hard, grinding work was the promise of a job that at least allowed you to secure basic frugal comforts.

The world looks a lot bleaker from those same foothills today. This month’s unemployment figures were especially wintry, indicating, as they do, that at least a million young would-be workers are left without the prospect of any kind of job whatsoever. Not even low-status conflake-picking roles. They simply don’t exist any longer, certainly not on the scale that will soak up the current need. Back in 2006, Lord Sandy Leitch’s landmark report into skills policy warned that by 2020 there will only be 600,000 jobs in our economy requiring no formal skills, down from around 3.5 million today. Some dispute that the numbers are quite that pessimistic, but the broad trend remains correct.

Of course when you overlay that scenario – stark enough on its own – with our lamentable efforts as a country in improving social mobility, then the chances for those at the bottom of the economic pile ever being able to scramble up the mound are slim.

All this is a scene-setter to try and explain why those who crane their necks as they gaze at the economic sunny uplands that they will never inhabit, are so angry. And why immigration regularly tops their list of concerns.

It’s more than a visceral reflex; a fear or dislike of foreigners. They feel that they haven’t got a hope in hell of bettering themselves – and that their kids will struggle even harder than they have – caught, as they see it, in a pincer movement with skilled immigrants welcomed in above them, pushing them down the economic pecking order; and equally-skilled newcomers willing to do their jobs for less.

Last month David Blunkett said that it is becoming “almost fashionable on the left” to be “xenophobic” about immigration; claiming that figures in the party like Maurice Glasman who critique its impact frame it as ”dangerous politically and unwise socially”.

That is a subject for another piece, but to say that mass immigration is economically unjust towards our poorest workers is surely less contentious?

Of course no-one wants to ignite racial tension or hover at the seamier end of our political street; but we owe the marginalised, low-paid, disillusioned millions more than our tin-ear. The issue is not going to go away, with annual net migration reaching its highest annual level ever last week.

In response, Labour needs to start seriously scoping out what its positive message and offer is to poor Britain.

This is a place where New Labour’s rising economic tide did not raise all boats. In poor Britain many crafts are scuttled before they launch into the water through a combination of lousy schooling, non-existent skills and a reshaping economy that crowds-out people whose only commercial attribute is a strong back or willingness to pick-out those burnt cornflakes.

There is no building site in the land where you can get a job as an unskilled labourer these days. No factory that soaks up the semi-literate pouring out of failing schools in depressed towns. No industries left where a father would have a word with his gaffer and find an opening for his son. These jobs have evaporated from our economy or gone to immigrant labour instead.

So far, there has been little electoral penalty for Labour in having little of substance to say to poor Britain. Its inhabitants do not vote in sufficient numbers to change the rules of the game; so in our harsh majoritarian electoral system, they are invisible and their entreaties go unheard. But these benighted people – dalits in the land of their birth – are still here. And they are not going anywhere.

But they are asking questions of us. Why did Labour make my life harder by making me compete with cheaper immigrants – dragging down what little bargaining power I had? Why did Labour have a light-touch approach to regulating labour market abuses that is every bit as wretched in its effects as the light-touch regulation of financial services? When the gangmaster’s licensing authority – Labour’s anaemic attempt to limit a race to the bottom – can boast that it imposes the “least possible burden” on shabby employers then something fundamental went wrong.

This is why viewing immigration solely through the economist’s eye misses the point. Welcoming-in newcomers with needed skills or placating a voracious business lobby that wishes to drive its labour costs ever-downwards by employing cheaper foreign workers does not result in poor Britain’s “unwanted” workers similarly migrating to find a new home where they can find a price for their skills. They stay here – getting poorer and becoming less connected to the mainstream. And more resentful. This is, after all, a country, not a marketplace. There is, to be sure, no international jet-set class of economically-mobile plasterer’s mates.

The implications are obvious. Either we will find a way of reintegrating poor Britons back into the mainstream, or we watch as they fall further behind; disillusioned and resentful. The ratchet is already turning – with our youth unemployment crisis bequeathing us a social and economic legacy that will echo for a generation.

Labour needs to shape a compelling new offer to poor Britain around skills, wages, workplace protection – and, yes, immigration. In power, we were buttressed by a booming economy and didn’t really need to. The sense of grievance and alienation – already apparent – could be conveniently side-stepped. After all, we were the party of the minimum wage and tax credits.

We had credibility in addressing some of the worst abuses of the labour market and there were plenty of jobs to go round. That was before we allowed immigration to run ahead of us, eroding many of these modest advances. But this is history. The challenge now – far greater than before – is about how we promote greater economic equality in years of famine, rather than years of plenty.

Ed Miliband rightly exhorts us to be more “responsible” – from the top to the bottom of society – from the corporate fat cats to the workshy. But give those at the bottom a level playing field and they will work.

On immigration, we should start by adopting an approach that develops British workers first; ensuring the ladder of opportunity for those born and bred here is not pulled away because the CBI’s members do not want to pay anything for their up-skilling; and rely on cheaper foreign alternatives instead.

Limiting immigration must be part of the deal we offer our home-grown untouchables. Until we are prepared to be bold and think in these terms, we will lose support in poor Britain – and have to learn to put up with a messy, circular debate about immigration.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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10 Responses to “The dalits of poor Britain hate immigration, not immigrants. When will we get that?”

  1. Mike Homfray says:

    The only way that something like this could happen would be a definitive rejection of globalisation and the free market, and the imposition of tariffs (serious ones which would prevent the import of cheap Chinese goods as a cheap option and promote local manufacturing). Perhaps at European level.
    However, if the New Labour adoration of globalised free markets continues, a byproduct of that will be the migration of cheap labour. Its part of the package.

  2. Stephen says:

    “Teachers at my school used to try and gee-up indolent pupils by telling them they would end up picking-out burnt cornflakes on the Kellogg’s production line if they didn’t get their acts together.”

    I feel that teachers should focus more on what the kids could achieve if they did work more effectively rather than giving them a vision of where they are currently headed.

  3. Steve says:

    Spot on

  4. Kevin says:

    Mike – I’m all for a spot of protectionism. Everyone else seems to get away with it. And you’re right: migration of our own unskilled theoretically follows in an unremittingly global world, but that’s my point: we’re a country, not a marketplace: we owe our people more.

    Stephen – absolutely.

    Steve- cheers.

  5. oliver says:

    Good piece. Seriously, ‘the left’ needs to acknowledging this more and the general fact that, whilst immigration might bring benefits to Britain as a wider whole, all the negatives are disproportionately hitting one demographic.

    What’s worse, this demographic has been trying to say this for a long time now – literally, this very thing: “it’s immigration and the system, not the immigrations” – and, barring the far right, no one has really been listening or, if they have, they’ve been dismissed as racists.

  6. Amber Star says:

    Why did Labour make my life harder by making me compete with cheaper immigrants – dragging down what little bargaining power I had?
    How romantic, Kevin.

    Labour gave them working family tax credit; help with their rent when they couldn’t get a council house ‘cos their Tory voting parents bought them all; help with childcare costs. You name it, Labour did it to give them the chance to compete with incoming workers from Europe. And what did they do? Voted Tory, SNP, UKIP or didn’t vote.

    So when their housing benefit is capped, family tax credit frozen, their older kids get their EMA taken away; any chance at all of going to Uni or college knocked on the head for young & mature students alike; & then they have to work for free filling shelves in Morrisons as part of a Coalition ‘apprenticeship’ scheme, will they still be blaming Labour & immigrants?

    Or will they wake up, smell the Tories, join a union, get themselves to a polling station & vote Labour? What do you think?

  7. Amber Star says:

    @ Kevin

    I’m all for a spot of protectionism. Everyone else seems to get away with it.
    Yes, indeed they do. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do the same.

  8. swatantra says:

    The premise is actually wrong. here is still deep prejudice and suspicion amongst the poor white community. They fear the competition for jobs, housing, etc and most of their fears are illfounded and misinformed.
    And until the white community accept immigration and immigrants and the fact that they are here to stay, it won’t change.
    We also have to stop this nonsense of ‘white flight’ which leaves inner cities turning into monocultures through no fault of the immigrants. Its the white community which are largely responsible.

  9. Mike Homfray says:

    I also support protectionism – I think the EU actually needs to be Fortress Europe, and abandon the neo-liberal globalisation mantra. Free trade within Europe, and advantageous terms for European products – the current set up cannot work and be sustainable. the idea that the Chinese will remain simply the producers of cheap goods for us is unrealistic. We must start producing for ourselves again and stopping what is cheap imports paid for by cheap labour

  10. Kevin says:

    swatantra – I never use the phrase ‘white working class’. Settled immigrant communities also hurt by recent waves of cheap labour immigration.

    We need to detach the discussion about multiculturalism, race, community cohesion etc away from the economics of mass immigration and the effect that has on our poorest workers.

    Dismissing concerns about the impact of mass immigration as ‘illfounded and misinformed’ will do nothing to reconnect Labour with poorest private sector workers who know different.

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