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