One Nation Labour has to be tough on immigration and tough on its causes

by Kevin Meagher

Tonight Ed Miliband will use a party election broadcast to set out a subtly new approach on immigration after apparently being stung by how resonant the issue has now become following Labour’s poor showing at the Eastleigh by-election.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper will follow up with a speech tomorrow setting out how Labour will get tough on so-called gangmasters, ending their practice of cramming immigrant workers into unsuitable accommodation while forcing them to pay extortionate rents for the privilege. There will also be a symbolic shift towards the police rather than HM Revenue and Customs taking the lead on enforcement of the national minimum wage.

“There must be a level playing field so domestic workers are not disadvantaged and employers shouldn’t be allowed to use migration in the wrong way,” says a Labour source.

This is all to the good. To be sure, Ed is making this intervention from the safe distance of critiquing labour market abuses rather than engaging, it seems, in the bigger discussion about culture, population and national identity. That may come another day, but at least the issue of immigration is now framed by an acceptance that it comes with costs for many people, particularly those at the bottom of the pile who are effectively priced out of jobs by migrant workers.

I’ve written before that Labour politicians – and many on the left – can’t seem to bring themselves to discuss downsides to immigration. (Indeed, the term ‘inward migration’ has crept into popular usage, as if eschewing the very mention of ‘immigration’ will nullify public concern). Like actors refusing to refer to “the Scottish play”, the subject is deemed to be taboo, inherently right-wing and the precursor to a more toxic discussion about race.

Enter Diane Abbott. She wrote a piece for the New Statesman yesterday warning that “immigration has served as a proxy for race in the British political narrative for so long, that it is still not possible to totally deracialise it.”

There must be no “move right on immigration”, she warned.

But it is not racial prejudice driving public concern about immigration, it is economic injustice. Indeed, the contemporary discussion about immigration pits older migrant communities against newcomers in a battle for scarce jobs and resources. Viewing immigration as a left vs. right battle between progressives and reactionaries is now hopelessly off-key.

These days the main dividing line on immigration is as much between the assumptions of our metro-liberal elite and the rest of the country. Whether in the bleak back streets of Burnley or the rural Hampshire villages of Eastleigh the case for laisse-faire immigration is lost. Westminster may be the very last place in the land to realise that. Labour’s recalibration today is timely and necessary.

None of this is to deny mass immigration has undoubtedly been good for the consuming class, offering the prospect of cheap loft conversions and landscaped gardens for our home-owning-curacy and cheap and compliant workers for our food production and hospitality industries. But for domestic workers it means a jobs drought with aggressive new competition eating away at living standards.

That’s the free market I suppose, but then that’s the point: Immigration is a necessary addendum for economic neo-liberalism to function. The growth of the New Labour years was held aloft courtesy of an ever-ready army of cheap migrants serving to keep corporate costs down. As the food industry writer Felicity Lawrence argues, it was the liberalisation of Sunday trading which first forced food producers to change their working patterns, becoming reliant on cheap migrant labour in the process.

Yet to our shame as a country, no-one ever really asks how these foreign workers live while they are here. Tales of twenty adults living in a rented terraced house, or unsanitary campsites full of fruit-picking migrants come and go. No-one bats an eyelid. The tragedy of the 21 Chinese cockle pickers who drowned in Morecombe Bay in 2004 was merely the most eye-catching case to date.

The last Labour government introduced the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority amid a clamour that “something must be done”. Understaffed and unfocused, it provided cosmetic cover. Rather than a means to regulate the abuse of casual workers, the GLA’s mission statement says it exists to impose ‘the least possible burden on Labour Providers and Labour Users through efficient and effective processes and procedures’. Squashing labour costs to suit the needs low-cost businesses has overridden our concern for their itinerant, voiceless workforce.

The lack of noise from the trade unions at this approach is the most disappointing; a mark, perhaps, of how detached they themselves now are from the working lives of so many at the bottom of the heap as they prefer to concentrate on their members in the public sector and the remnants of British industry.

Surely it is a great progressive cause to tackle labour market abuses and offer British workers something more than the dismal prospect of competing with migrant workers on the basis of who will work for least? Isn’t that what a labour party should be for?

This is the calculation Ed Miliband has now arrived at. The Labour leadership’s willingness to grasp immigration as an issue is also smart politics and a significant staging post on the way to becoming a credible alternative party of government; and especially important as Prime Minister Miliband may be grappling with the fallout from a wave of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration as soon as he crosses the threshold of Number Ten.

So yes, crack down on the systematic non-payment of the minimum wage and the wretched conditions many migrant workers are kept in. But go further. Turn the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority into a body which puts working conditions of migrant workers above the greed of an overseer class. Move into the nooks and crannies of the construction, care and hospitality sectors with regulatory gusto and commit Labour to a compulsory training levy which will address the culture of endless cost undercutting which drives so much demand for cheap, casualised labour.

Offer migrant workers a much higher basic threshold and it diminishes the rationale for exploiting them in the first place – an automatic corrective to the influx of cheap foreign workers we have seen over this last decade.  It also provides our home-grown workers with the chance to earn a reasonable living in the foothills of our economy once again.

An effective approach to migrant labour is, then, about economic justice, not racial prejudice. In the interests of One Nation politics Labour has to become the party that is tough on immigration, but tougher on its causes.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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16 Responses to “One Nation Labour has to be tough on immigration and tough on its causes”

  1. Jon Lansman says:

    Kevin, you’re setting up a false split with the Left here. I think the broadcast is carefully crafted and I have no real issue with it. Ed is perhaps setting himself up to fail by saying that low-skilled immigration is too high without proposing any method in the future of controlling it (which wold mean breaking with the neo-liberal approach to the labour market in the EU which New Labour insisted upon, something he doesn’t mention).

    Your suggestion that Diane Abbott’s prior article in the Statesman is at odds with it is I think wrong. Her conclusion is: “There is no path to victory for the Labour Party in 2015 through the thickets of anti-immigrant politics and I am confident that Ed Miliband knows this. There is certainly a pressing need to sort out the chaos at the UK Border Agency. And I warmly welcome the practical policies that my party is shaping around the real discontents of ordinary people; ranging from building more homes to the principle of a living wage.”

    Where is the contradiction with Ed’s broadcast which is so careful not to be anti-immigrant? Ed does in fact refer to benefits of immigration, and majors on the worker protection issues. If you want to find dissenters on Ed’s position, I suggest you go in search of Labour’s flexible labour market obsessives who’ve been remarkably quiet of late. I can’t imagine you’re much enamoured of the concept of a reserve army of labour.

  2. Nick says:

    Still missing the point.

    People are pissed off because you are forcing them to pay for migrants to come here.

    It’s just too like racism.

    e.g If someone said, we’ve got muslim terrorists, so all muslims must be terrorist you would rightly complain.

    However we’ve got labour say, look some migrants are beneficial, so all migrants must be beneficial.

    Then followed up by look, this study says they are beneficial overall, which is direct racism. Migrants are better than British people

    Migration is optional.

    We should allow in migrants who pay more tax than they consume in government resources. They can stay whilst they meet this test. The rest have to go.

    So Ed isn’t talking about fixing the mess he’s created at all. We still have to put up with Phillip Lawaurance’s killer, Learco Chindamo

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    The case for freedom of movement of labour is not simply a “necessary addendum for economic neo-liberalism to function”; the case for freedom of movement of labour is also a necessary precursor for international solidarity between workers of the world.
    This is perhaps why this topic is complicated for those on the political left. How best to balance the interests of those workers in the nation where we reside against the common good of the international working class? Protectionism was once the reserve of land-owning Tories and mill-owning Liberals who rigged the markets in favour of their own products. The notion of a free market has only ever been a construct of corporate business; exploiting labour where it can. The market is heavily skewed in favour of big business and has been for centuries.
    The issue is further complicated by accusations of reliance on welfare and discussions framed around the definition of race. I find it incredible that senior politicians, including Diane Abbot and Vince Cable, still refer to “race” when those working in HR, education, law, statistics and social services have all dropped this archaic term in favour of the more balanced identifier of ethnicity. There is only one human race and the sooner that legislation is amended to remove reference to “race” the better. All human life is classified as belonging to the species homo sapiens; the current orthodoxy of recognizing that different phenotypic characteristics (such as physical aspects, ethnicity, geographical ancestry) constitute “racial” differences perpetuates the same flawed ideology that made slavery permissible.

  4. Kevin says:

    Thanks Jon. Not trying to line up a split. As I say, I think the issue is now about how we treat those at the bottom of the economic pile. We’ve created a system where those least able to withstand globalisation are forced into relentless competition while those who sit above them in the economic pecking order are barely touched.

    In terms of Diane, her intervention can only be read as a shot across the bows. I get what’s she’s saying, but I just think she’s of the pace with her analysis. Of course those with a general dislike of immigration for racist motives can hide behind those with a reasoned objection.

    But it doesn’t mean those with a rational, empirical worry about the effects of migrant labour shouldn’t be heard. The left (and by that I mean the whole centre-left) often gives the impression that the concern is somehow illegitimate.

  5. swatantra says:

    Never thought I’d see the day when Labour would be pandering to the racists.
    Whenever the ordinary man or woman in the street talks about ‘immigration’ their unspoken thoughts are basically about ‘foreigners’ coming into this country.
    Yes, change is difficult but its something that we have all to face and not find excuses for, and ‘immigration’ is the excuse for a whole lot of things not going our way.
    Even if ‘immigration’ came to a complete halt, those basic underlying problems and insecurities in the British psyche will remain.

  6. Mark Stockwell says:

    Oh, I get it. When the right talks about the impacts of immigration on the existing population, that’s just a fig leaf for racism. But when the left does the same, that’s be3cause it’s a progressive cause and a significant staging post on the path to being a credible alternative government. It’s all so clear now, I wonder why I never saw it before.

  7. Kevin says:

    Robin – yes, good observation about ethnicity/ race.

    Swantara – not sure how improving living standards working conditions to frustrate deadbeat employers is pandering to the right?

    Mark – And your point is?

  8. Tony Hammond says:

    You have to put such tectonic forces as mass immigration adopted as policy into the historical context of the Labour Movement. The forces wanted to encorage mass immigration existed before 1997, They existed in 1950, 1960 etc.. etc.. but why was this policy suddenly adopted by the Labour party post 1997?

    Now I am going to shock you. The strongest immigration controls in UK history were NOT put in place by the Conservatives.

    It was the Labour Government in the 1970s who implemented the toughest immigration controls in UK history.

    It did this to protect ordinary workers from the spectre of mass immigration which they (rightfully) feared. It also implemented the Race Relations Act at the same time clamping down on racism.

    At that time the Labour party was funded 50/50 between private sector unions and public sector unions. The private sector unions prevented mass immigration – doing their jobs protecting domestic workers from declining living standards and rising rents etc.. Or wages falling to all time lows while profits and rents rose to all time highs as a %age of GDP – the situation we have now.

    In the 1980s the private sector unions were curbed, but membership seriously eroded due to economic factors like control of inflation, rising real wages and limited immigration.

    By 1997, The Labour Party was soon funded 90% by the public sector unions. The historic ‘Labour movement’ of private sector unions was gone. Along with this, the political muscle of the private sector worker was also gone.

    Mass Immigration to deflate the wages of the private sector as credit was expanded seemlingly without limit, to the benefit of corporate profits and the wages of the increasingly unaccountable public sector was soon the policy of the Labour party.

    Now we have a situation where ordinary people find whoever they vote for, from the main parties, mass immigration affecting their lives – their wages, houseprices, rents and general pressure of competition of resources – is not a policy that even parliament has the power to change – a unelected EU elite controls that!

  9. My point, Kevin, is that it’s mildly amusing to those of us on the right when the left ties itself in knots like this trying to work out whether it’s OK for them to talk about this stuff.

  10. Kevin says:

    Tony – yes, useful context. The unions had it right 40 years ago. I think what many find maddening is the way mass immigration has been used as an incomes policy which affects, in the main, the private sector poor rather than those in the public sector or the middle class professionals happy to pay cash for their cut-price loft conversion.

    Mark – No dilemmas in my book: yes it is legitimate to talk about immigration. I’ve argued many times that it should be treated like any other public policy issue. Some immigration is useful, some isn’t. Where it isn’t helpful, curb it.

  11. swatantra says:

    The ‘Windrush’ experience I think occured under a Tory Govt, trying to fill the labour gap in the transport industry; and the East African experience also occurred under a Tory Govt, when Heath had no choice but to honour holders of British passports, and Heath was if nothing but an honourable man; it was he after all that took us courageously ino Europe. Those two mass immigrations chaned British society for ever.
    But you are right, the stiffest immigration controls were brought in under Wilsons Labour Govts. And Blair was a bit naive and trusting when it came to Bush and followed him like a lapdog which led to a wave of Afghans, Bosnians and Iraqi refugees settling here. And too trusting and naive again when he didn’t phase in the E Europeans, like the rest of W Europe did.

  12. John Reid says:

    Swatantra I don’t think this is racist, but the headline was a mistake. We all know the phrase comes from us and you’ve swapped the word crime for immigration , so it autimatically makes people think immigration is bad as crime is bad, nick had some good points,

  13. paul barker says:

    Labour havent changed, still blowing that old racist dog-whistle, still the nasty party.

  14. Ex-Labour says:


    Are Labour really addressing the problem ? It seems that coming from the point of discussing migrant welfare is not exactly what the British public had in mind.

    Lets be honest. The previous Labour governments secret “open door” policy, which was eventuslly exposed by a whistle-blower, has caused the current situation. Immigration is affecting the poorest people and poorest communities by squeazing social, health and economic resources, driving down salaries for the lower paid and distorting the labour market as a whole.

    Now it seems rather than tackle the problem they created Labour again want to tinker around the edges putting forward vague remedies to a Labour definition of the problem.

    At least the Tories recognise what the problem is and are trying to do something about it.

    Ask yourself when Labour is riding high in the polls they made no impact whatsoever in Eastleigh. As I said in another response they have no credibility with the electorate on many issues of national importance e.g the economy and immigration.

  15. savepenrhos says:

    You need to get a grip and start accepting what the mainstream want.

    Benefits – all benefits forms must be filled in at a benefits office under observation of one of their staff by the claimant ( or someone nominated in the cases of dyslexia). All advice notes etc must be in English/Welsh. All interviews conducted solely in English /Welsh, no interpretors.

    Social Housing. Only to be granted to people possessing UK citizenship.

    Jobs. All job application forms and interviews to be in English/Welsh.

    Immigrants excluded from benefits system until they are a UK citizen AND have been resident for a minimum of 2 years.

    The only people to be excluded any of that are people granted asylum.

    Any immigrant/non-UK citizen who gets a prison sentence – actual or suspended,, is deported immediatey. If there are any family issues, the UK government to pay for the family to leave as well if they wish. To apply even to people granted asylum

  16. Paul J says:

    “I think what many find maddening is the way mass immigration has been used as an incomes policy which affects, in the main, the private sector poor rather than those in the public sector or the middle class professionals happy to pay cash for their cut-price loft conversion.”


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