Cameron understands that immigration is a class issue

by Nick Keehan

Language is important when it comes to integration and community cohesion. Successive governments have therefore sought to make it compulsory for all ministers delivering speeches on immigration to learn how to speak in clichés. If a prime minister or home secretary comes over here and is not even able to use simple phrases such as “open debate”, “impression that their concerns were racist”, “huge contribution to Britain”, “real pressure on communities” and “massive back-log of asylum cases”, there is a real risk to cohesion up and down this country.

And cohesion is important when it comes to immigration. A lack of government cohesion, for example, can lead to mixed messages, and this only undermines sensible and reasoned debate. As the prime minister said in his speech yesterday:

“The last government … actually helped to inflame the debate. On the one hand, there were Labour ministers who closed down discussion, giving the impression that concerns about immigration were somehow racist. On the other, there were ministers hell-bent on burnishing their hard-line credentials by talking tough”.

Sensible stuff, more or less, but slightly undermined by the way Cameron’s team briefed the press (“Cameron: Immigrants threaten our way of life” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph, “Mass migration has divided our society” that in the Daily Mail), which might give the impression that the speech was an attempt by the prime minister to burnish his hard-line credentials by talking tough ahead of the local elections. Only for Vince Cable to attack the speech as “very unwise” and to suggest that it risked “inflaming extremism”, which some might interpret as an attempt by the business minister to close down discussion. Plus ça change. Or “Labour, Tory, they’re all the same”, as a voter turning towards the BNP might put it.

There are differences, however, and Cameron’s speech, however much it followed the standard template of immigration speeches given by government ministers in recent years (not racist, open debate, positive contribution, pressure on communities, new system working after years of chaos, immigrants must speak English – the only thing missing was the admission of past failures, but give it three or four years) highlighted some of them. The most notable is obviously the government’s immigration cap, which the prime minister defended against the ranks of economists, businessmen, academics and secretaries of state for business, innovation and skills lining up to oppose it. Perhaps most interesting, however, were the remarks the prime minister made about the role of the supply of and demand for labour in relation to immigration.

In addressing the issue of labour supply and demand, Cameron noted that many foreign-born workers are, or have been, “employed to clean offices, serve in restaurants or work on building sites”, while “at the same time we have had persistently, eye-wateringly high numbers of British born people stuck on welfare”. This was not to argue that immigrants were taking British jobs, but that high immigration was a result of British people refusing to do the jobs that migrant workers do. What was interesting about this was Cameron’s response to this state of affairs: welfare reform. The government’s cap on immigration would not lead to a labour shortage because the government will reform the welfare system so that the long-term unemployed fill the gap left by reduced immigration.

That the choice for Cameron is high immigration or welfare reform is telling. Welfare reform is necessary and, if the government can do it in the right way, more or less a good thing – as the Parliamentary Labour party’s abstention in the vote on the second reading of the welfare reform bill suggests. But when the supply of labour is not enough to meet the demand, surely the obvious way to increase that supply is for employers to improve pay and conditions. That is, making work pay by making work pay. Cameron was silent on this.

Labour’s immediate response to Cameron’s speech has been to emphasise that the government’s immigration policy is in chaos and that Vince Cable disagrees with it. That’s all good so far as it goes, but the same could be said about any area of government policy (seriously, Cable’s finger must be itching furiously on that nuclear trigger – it must be like Crimson Tide in his private office). The foundations for a more long-term response for Labour on the issue of immigration, however, can be found in the remarks Ed Miliband made on immigration in his speech launching his leadership campaign back in May last year, and again in his speech at conference.

The point that Ed Miliband made in these speeches was that immigration is a class issue. This is true. While the evidence suggests that immigration has little or no effect on pay rates overall, or even that it has a positive impact on wages, it can reduce wages for some groups of workers. For example, a 2008 study by Stephen Nickell of Nuffield College, Oxford and Jumana Saleheen of the bank of England and the federal reserve bank of Boston found that among skilled production workers and in the semi/unskilled services sector, immigration had a serious negative impact on pay. In the semi/unskilled services, a ten percentage point rise in the proportion of immigrants as a share of the workforce is associated with a five per cent reduction in pay. Thus, while the better-off reaped the economic benefits of immigration, the costs were borne by those on low pay, those working in bars, restaurants, shops, care homes and cleaning.

Cameron’s speech was not aimed at them, though. It was aimed at the core Tory vote. Those identified in the searchlight report, Fear and Hope, as culturally integrationist, who may have benefitted financially from immigration over the last decade, but are uncomfortable with its cultural and social impacts and want something done about it, just so long as they don’t have to pay any more to get a cleaner. This was a speech to reassure them that, having gained the economic benefits of increased immigration, they weren’t going to be bearing the costs of any reduction. No, those costs would be borne once again by the economically insecure and those on low pay. Those worst hit by the cuts. Those most likely to turn to extremist parties. Let’s hope the prime minister knows what he’s doing.

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6 Responses to “Cameron understands that immigration is a class issue”

  1. Iain Ker says:

    Yes it was another failure of the last government to let 5.5 million sit on the dole while admitting 3 million overseas workers in ‘to do the jobs the British won’t do’.

    I’m struggling here – is there anything the last government succeeded at? Busting the economy doesn’t count – we have to call that one, ‘a failure’.

  2. theProle says:

    >But when the supply of labour is not enough to meet the demand, surely the obvious way to increase that supply is for employers to improve pay and conditions. That is, making work pay by making work pay.

    Ah, another one of those folks who believe in the ‘tree’ theory of money.

    Back in the real world, the problem is that it is very hard for employers to raise wages (already at over £50 a day for the minimum wage) while the competition in china has labour available for around £3 a day. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the welfare state makes low paid work look unattractive, as you can receive nearly as much to do nothing. The best fix, at least in the short term is to reduce the number of people who have chosen benefits as a career.

  3. AmberStar says:

    Ed M does seem to understand the issue. We look forward to hearing how Labour translates his understanding into a workable policy which is capable of overcoming the initial knee-jerk derision that it’s certain to provoke.

  4. Richard says:

    Daily minimum wage is below £50.

  5. Richard says:

    And the labour force in China can’t clean offices, serve in shops and restaurants, care for the elderly, empty our bins, clean our streets. That’s the reality.

  6. Robert says:

    But in my area we have a phone center which works on sales, no sales no pay, and the biggest number of people working here are Asian, I turned down the job because I wanted a payment per hour. Then you have restaurants, Asian who refuse to employ white or non Asian people as one owner said they know how to work, in other words they bow.

    So this idea whites will not do jobs just look around any retail unit you will see men doing jobs which would not have been done a few years ago.

    We have a factory which buses people in from Poland, reason well look at the fines they have had for not paying over time, not paying week end work, not paying working bank holidays and refusing to pay the min wage.

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