The real Labour lie on immigration

by Atul Hatwal

David Cameron’s speech on immigration last week sparked a predictably incoherent response from Labour.

The official line was to not have a line on what Cameron was talking about. Nor was it to have a line on Vince Cable’s response.

Instead, Labour just talked about there being a government split. While several elephants trampled around Labour’s room. Did the party agree with Cameron? Or Cable? Did it want to defend its record?

Questions, questions.

No answers were immediately forthcoming, but some clues on leadership thinking, beyond abject terror at the use of the ‘I’ word, have begun to seep out in the past week.

Up popped Maurice Glasman in the pages of Progress, Labour’s very own pearly king, or at least Lord. He had lots to say about Labour’s “lie” on the levels of immigration, the impact on traditional working class folk and the need to “reconnect” with members of the English Defence League.

Gor blimey guvnor.

Then Ed Miliband chipped in to Nick Robinson. Citing the mythical conversation with the average punter, so beloved of politicians reaching for some authenticity, he said:

“I think we clearly underestimated the number of people coming from Poland…People say to me, look I’m worried about the pressure on my wages of people coming into the country, I’m worried about what it does to housing supply”.

Looking beyond it being unlikely anyone really said that to him, given no-one outside of a think tank actually talks like that, Miliband’s words marked the complete triumph of a new narrative for Labour on immigration. He might have skirted around the topic during the leadership election, but this was the first time he had articulated the narrative as leader of the Labour party.

While the right wail about identity, security and look suspiciously at the Pakistani migrants and their children; Labour has gone down the Duffy road with an invading army of eastern Europeans pushing hard pressed Brits out of jobs.

Increased labour supply at the lower income end of the labour market, driving down wages, increasing unemployment and increasing pressure on public services is the more salon-friendly version of this thesis.

But here’s the problem. Regardless of the way it’s expressed, it’s wrong. Not morally or ethically, but factually.

When someone repeats factual errors in ignorance, it’s understandable. Gillian Duffy was reflecting the words she read in newspapers and heard from politicians.

When senior politicians, and in the case of Glasman, academics, who have access to the facts, wilfully perpetuate these myths, they are lying.

On wages, employment and public services, Labour’s new narrative is completely wrong in blaming eastern European migration as the cause of the problems people are facing.

First, in terms of the impact on wages, since 2004, a net 304,000 eastern European citizens from new members of the EU like Poland have migrated to the UK. Based on surveys of economic activity amongst this group, roughly 10% are not economically active which means that the migration has increased the UK workforce by 274,000 over six years.

This sounds a lot, but as a proportion of the total workforce of 31m, it represents an increase of less than 1%.

Research cited by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory has highlighted how a 1% rise in the proportion of migrants in lower skill, lower income jobs tends to reduce wages in those sectors by 0.5%.

This means that even if all of the eastern Europeans were competing at the lower end of the labour market, in the bottom third – and they’re not – then the net result would have been to exert a negative influence on wages of 1.3% over six years – an average of 0.2% per year.

For someone with a job on a production line, with a typical weekly wage of £442 per week, the impact would have been 99p per week.

For people on low incomes, anything that holds back wage growth isn’t great. But 99p per week isn’t going to drive the type of angry disillusionment that Miliband and Glasman are talking about.

If it did, then after one year of the Tory-led coalition, Britain would currently resemble revolutionary France and there wouldn’t be a royal wedding anytime soon.

Second, the evidence on employment is equally clear. An academic research paper from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), from mid-2008 just after the peak of the eastern European migration, found that there was no impact on unemployment. Not on overall levels or even on specific groups such as the young or unskilled.

The results of this paper were in line with an earlier DWP academic analysis, from 2006, which had similarly found no correlation between the immigration and unemployment.

In a sense, this should hardly be surprising. At the time the economy was still in the longest period of growth in the country’s history and there weren’t enough people to do the jobs.

Since the crash in late 2008, demand for labour has declined, but then significantly larger numbers of eastern European migrants have also left Britain as the economy has slowed down.

Over 200,000 left in 2008 and 2009, and net positive migration into the UK from eastern Europe fell back to 16,000 in 2009. This is similar to the levels before the accession of the new EU states – in 2002/3 the migration from these states was 12,000.

Third, on public services, for all the supposed pressure from all these extra people, the facts point in the opposite direction.

Research from University College London last year found that eastern European migrants were 60% less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits compared to a UK born national and 58% less likely to live in social housing.

The research also found that higher employment levels amongst eastern Europeans meant they contributed disproportionately more through tax revenue than comparable UK born nationals

The combination of high tax contributions with low take-up of public services means that the eastern Europeans are in fact net contributors to the British economy.

At a time of swingeing deficit cuts, it’s ironic that people who pay in more than they take out are being held up as part of the problem.

The reality of the situation is that no-one of any seniority in the Labour party has bothered to devote one iota of their attention to the facts. The new narrative is their lazy way of trying to reconnect with disillusioned working class voters and offer up a bit of mea culpa.

Instead of looking at the evidence, Ed Miliband is wandering along after Maurice Glasman into a reverie of 1930s music hall Labour located in a world before post-war immigration.

People out in the country do feel genuinely angry about immigration. But there’s a difference between perception and reality. Labour’s current position is to just accept the perception without making the case for the truth.

Part of politics is about picking where to take a stand and lead opinion rather than follow it. Right now, the party has chosen to follow, regardless of the misinformation and lies on which the new position is based.

It’s a position which validates Tory attacks on Labour’s record, makes the positive case for immigration impossible to make and locks the party into a contest it can never win – being tougher than the Tories on foreigners.
Well done, one and all.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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15 Responses to “The real Labour lie on immigration”

  1. Andrew Old says:

    This is an almost perfect example of the disconnect between real people’s lives and the perspective of those in a chattering class bubble.

    If you are a building labourer in Slough who finds they can no longer make a living because of Eastern European entrants to that particular job market, do you think it matters that, on average, the loss of income is 99p a week or that total unemployment is not any greater? The effects are not felt in aggregate or in total, they are felt here and now on individuals in particular areas. You can’t dismiss the people who lose out as collateral damage irrelevant to the overall economic picture.

    If your local primary school is over-crowded and struggling with the number of students who don’t speak English, do you think that the problem is solved by an observation about greater tax revenues? Do you think increased tax revenues immediately feed into extra classrooms and TA’s? The problem is an immediate and current concern.

    The negative effects of immigration are concentrated geographically and socially, usually on the poor in particular areas. An appeal to the idea that these effects are small in total or in aggregate is simply an appeal to the idea that a loss to somebody on a low income in a deprived area can be offset by a gain made by a millionaire in the City. Can you understand why people, particularly people in deprived areas with mass immigration, might expect better from Labour?

  2. Boudicca says:

    This is the reality:$1177868.htm

    80% of the new jobs which were created whilst Labour were in Govt 1997-2010 went to immigrants.

    The British people aren’t known for being racist; we have always been very tolerant of immigrants, providing they integrate and accept British laws and British way of life.

    Unfortunately, the immigrants which Labour allowed to flood in from the 3rd world are not integrating and many make it very clear that they don’t want to. They have imported their own religious/cultural practices – many of which are discriminatory and violent towards women and homosexuals – and reject the equality laws which Labour is generally so very keen on (for the rest of us).

    British society changed before our eyes during Labour’s years in power yet the members of that Government systematically lied about what was happening. It was Labour’s own core vote that was most badly affected: no wonder we now have groups like the English Defence League and the BNP.

  3. doreen ogden says:

    Facts at last. Sick of Miliband doing Labour down , yes ok we got some things wrong but we got a hell of a lot right and he seems afraid to mention them.

  4. N J Mayes says:

    “There weren’t enough people to do the jobs” – this at a time when there were the best part of two million British adults on JSA?

    Also, it’s revealing that this article only discusses eastern Europe, not all the other sources of immigration.

  5. Andrew Barton says:

    It’s all very well breaking down the figures across the whole country but the reality is not like this. There are areas where there are large polish communities who do make a difference to the low paid jobs market.

    I live in East Anglia and work in residential care. Many homes have up to 50% immigrant work forces. This in itself is not a problem as they are conscientious, hard working and willing to put in that extra ‘bit’. But to say they make no difference to the local workforce is plainly wrong.

  6. Scudderite says:

    I wish the author of this piece replied to counter the typical racist rubbish in the comments.

  7. Andrew Barton says:

    scudderite, I think the comments are measured. Still don’t let facts get in the way my friend!

  8. james says:

    Atul, people outside of think tanks do actually express concerns about increased competition for jobs and housing. That’s pretty much what Gillian Duffy was said last year. Further there’s a concern about the outsourcing of jobs to lower-wage economies.

    I think two pressures have shaped Labour’s current position. One is the need to wipe the slate clean and agree with criticisms people have made of the party. The other is the need to conform to elite expectations of a “responsible” Labour opposition and say as little as possible about the inherent tension between wages and profits within capitalist firms…

  9. Richard says:

    Bouddicca, the article you reference states:

    “Eight out of every ten jobs created in the last decade could have been filled by foreign workers.”

    Notice the conditional construction in that sentence? No unequivocal assertion of hard facts, merely a suggestion of a possibilty.

  10. Richard says:

    Atul, why don’t you send this artcle to Gillian Duffy and see what she makes of it? I’m sure her MP will oblige with her address. As earlier contributors have said, it’s the concentration of immigration-related problems that affects people’s lives most. An aggregate over the entire country is hardly likely to assuage them.

  11. Richard says:

    N.J. Mayes, why don’t you read the paper cited for yourself and discover the facts, instead of making up some figure you probably pulled from the The Wail?

    From May 01 to Nov 07, JSA claimant count remained well below the 1m mark, with a brief peak in 2005.

  12. AmberStar says:

    People do say exactly what Ed Miliband said they say. And they say it to him, when he is out of Westminster talking to ‘ordinary people’. Ed promised to listen to people & try to understand their concerns. IMO, Responding to them with a volley of statistics wouldn’t be particularly helpful. Is that what you’d like Ed to do?

  13. James says:

    >[Eastern European] migration has increased the UK workforce by 274,000 over six years…an increase of less than 1%.

    I’d just echo Andrew Barton and Andrew Old and say that this statistic needs to refer to specific kinds of job in specific localities to be meaningful.

    The background to all these ideas is that people should live as mobile British/European/Global worker drones, rather than as members of local communities.

  14. LesAbbey says:

    I am very suspicious of this ‘Blue Labour’ thing. I suspect it’s a Trojan horse for the Blairites, but at the same time Miliband is right to look again at Labour’s immigration policy. This isn’t going against any socialist principle as the principle is in racism, not immigration.

    What Atul misses out, and more due to Eastern European immigration than anything else, is the effect on some skilled and semi-skilled employment. Someone has already mentioned the building trade, but prime examples are with pay rates for electricians and plumbers. The number of apprentices being taken into these trades could also be looked at.

    The fact that Gordon Brown couldn’t see what Mrs. Duffy was on about has more to do with heads in the sand. Good to see Ed Miliband is at least thinking about it.

  15. Andrew Old says:

    Actually, I think Scudderite’s comment might be key here. If the people commenting here, who are most probably middle class, left-leaning politically aware types talking about economics can be accused of racism then it’s no wonder so many ordinary members of the public confronted with the situation feel excluded from the debate.

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