Reframing immigration: Ed’s clause four moment?

by Kevin Meagher

I had never heard of Maurice Glasman until a year ago. Now this “radical traditionalist” frontman for the blue Labour movement seems to be everywhere.

To his friends, he is the exponent of a viable new politics for Labour, drawing on earlier, non-statist traditions of social solidarity and reciprocity and rejecting New Labour’s fetish for market solutions and, most controversially, the commodification of labour through a decade’s worth of mass immigration.

To his opponents, however, he is a nostalgic blowhard peddling a backwards-looking Labourist version of the big society to a party desperate for any crumbs of intellectual coherence.

Friend or foe alike can agree, however, that Glasman does not mince his words, particularly about immigration. Accordingly, he reckons Labour “lied” to the public about the scale of immigration that the party presided over in government. He warns that Britain must not become an “outpost of the UN”, instead focusing on the welfare of its own workers first, revising the EU’s free transfer of people to that effect.

Not surprisingly, Glasman has found himself assailed for his candour (an unusual characteristic in a jobbing academic). Diane Abbott has accused him of “giving credence to right wing mythology” on immigration, while Helen Goodman said his view of society belonged in “a Janet and John Fifties era”.

As Ed Miliband’s official guru-in-residence (literally meeting in the leader’s living room on Sundays, according to reports) his is the most senior voice in the party willing to raise the issue of mass immigration and articulate why Labour’s approach in government had massive downsides for some of our poorest workers.

The good Lord Glasman is even said to have sent some of his own supporters a-leaping given the frankness of his remarks. So, like a latter-day Galileo before the left’s Inquisition, he has recently been forced to recant, pledging to take “a vow of silence” for the “crassness” with which he has expressed his critique of immigration.

He should not be so harsh on himself. As a self-confessed outsider, he wasn’t to know that Labour occasionally likes to wallow in its own hypocrisy. Like Shakespearian actors that dare not utter the name of “the Scottish play”, a generation of Labour politicians simply refuses to seriously engage with immigration as an issue. The subject is deemed to be taboo, inherently right-wing and the precursor to a more toxic discussion about race. Did Glasman not read the sign? We do not discuss immigration here. Period.

Even a recanting Glasman, though, has opened up a window. A chance blast of fresh air has entered the party’s stale thinking. At last there are voices pointing out that there is a legitimate sense of grievance from the working poor, who see newcomers competing for their jobs and driving down their wages and conditions.

It is a message that still seems to come as a surprise to some in the party. It shouldn’t. Although it is a fair bet there are not many Polish researchers undercutting the wages of wonks in Westminster’s think tanks, this is exactly what is going on in factories and on building sites across the country.

That is why people are so angry about Labour’s record on immigration. Not because Britain is chock full of race haters. It isn’t; but it is increasingly full of people who feel Labour politicians utterly dismiss their concerns about the real, practical effects that three million people coming to live and work in Britain has had on their lives.

New Labour’s blind faith in the inevitability of globalisation, has inured the party from deeper thought about what the free movement of capital and labour means for ordinary people.

Despite presiding over a decade-long boom, a rising tide did not raise all boats on Labour’s watch, not least among the five million working age adults stuck on benefits. Moreover these people will never find a way off welfare while a steady flow of immigrant labour keeps wages down for those on the bottom tier of our economic pyramid.

Unfortunately our response in government to protecting people at the sharp end of a globalised economy was as light touch as our approach to financial regulation. And just as damning.

Our answer to the casualisation of foreign labour was to establish the gangmasters’ licensing authority, formalising a ghastly little industry which is barely one step up the moral food chain from people trafficking.

We should have been resolute in stamping our values on policy and regulated so-called “gangmasters” to death. Instead, the GLA’s mission statement claims it will ‘impos[e] the least possible burden on Labour Providers’ whose stock-in-trade is a race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions; using desperate immigrants to undercut our own lowly-paid and poorly skilled.

A call for protectionism? Absolutely. More importantly it is also the kind of dirigisme the British public buys. But while four out of five jobs go to foreign-born nationals, it remains impossible for Labour to earn a hearing from millions of alienated voters.

So we find ourselves cast as a people’s party without a popular touch on the issue that regularly tops the list of voters’ concerns, with three quarters of Labour’s own supporters calling for curbs on immigration.

They recognise it is an issue about economics. Living standards. What is fair and unfair. And it goes to the heart of who and what the Labour party is in the business of standing up for.

Unfortunately the entire debate is currently moored on a silt-bed; with many on the left unable (and unwilling) to accept there is even a discussion to be had; utterly disbelieving that it can be a constructive conversation about lifting up the poor – not simply used an excuse to castigate newcomers.

That is the point Glasman has been trying to make about immigration in his inimitable way. Tough for some to hear, yes; but unmistakeably a critique from the left.

Ed Miliband’s opportunity is to now change the terms of exchange on immigration; shaking the left out of its intellectual sloth and reframing the debate about how we build an economy founded on fair shares, economic justice, skills investment and developing our own people’s talent and employability. Yes to immigration where it adds to the common good; no where it does not.

He has previously brushed alongside the issue with his speech about the “British promise” and how parents fear their children will not be able to emulate their success – priced out of the housing market and working in insecure jobs. But Ed needs to face up to the entirely negative effect mass immigration has had on many poorer workers lives.

The New Statesman’s Raphael Behr speculated last week that he is set to do so, albeit couching it in a broader narrative about the role of corporations in lobbying for open EU borders.

But if he wants to reach out to those who feel swept along by the pace of economic change and abandoned by Labour he needs to be bolder than that.

Political parties cannot carry around redundant ideological baggage. The left’s vow of omertà on discussing immigration and its deleterious effects for the working poor must be challenged. We must learn to treat immigration as an economic and policy issue. Speaking plainly to the country and offering a direct response to the issues facing people in their everyday lives is the difference between being a credible alternative government and an opposition party.

That was the prize that Tony Blair sought and won with his revision of clause four back in 1995. He earned a chance to be heard by facing up to the articles of the old faith and by choosing to engage directly with the country.

If Ed Miliband shows boldness in listening to his Sunday house guests about immigration, a fair hearing can be his prize too.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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9 Responses to “Reframing immigration: Ed’s clause four moment?”

  1. James Reade says:

    Fair and unfair eh?

    What’s fair about mollycoddling those unwilling to get off their backsides to do jobs? Placating those who whine and moan and want protecting from nasty, competent, Jonny Foreigner who does their job infinitely better without moaning and shirking, and not demanding as much pay (which must be more than their productivity – but hey, we’re on the left, what does it matter if a company goes bust, so long as it pays workers what they “think” they are worth?).

    Mollycoddling these people by blocking competent people from elsewhere coming in and competing for jobs is not getting Britain working again, and if you cannot see this, I despair. I competed in an international environment to get my job – why should others be protected so they can carry on being incompetent in their jobs?

    If Labour follows the suggestions of this article, I will be seriously reconsidering my membership and vote come the next election.

  2. Oliver says:

    Excellent stuff. I’m not particularly enamoured with the whole ‘Blue Labour’ thing at all, but it’s been important because it dared – for a brief while at least – to bring-up the issue of immigration.

    I’ve never understood the problem ‘the left’ has with the topic of immigration – and I say that as someone with politics far to the left of New Labour. Much of the traditional foundation of Labour has been about the opportunities and inequalities of those at the bottom end of society. Yet it’s been blindingly obvious to anyone that is willing to look honestly at the situation that mass-immigration has been detrimental to the same people that Labour originally sought to speak for.

    The point about ‘immigrants not undercutting think tank wonks’ is something I’ve said many, many times over the last ten years. Mass immigration hits society assymetrically and disproportionately. By and large, immigrants are competing for jobs traditionally taken by the lower end of society. They are also competing for the housing opportunities traditionally taken by the lower end of society. This continues for school places, health services and so on.

    That we live in a society where jobs, housing, health services, school places etc are being stretched increasingly thinly – unemployment will explode in the next couple of years – is undeniable. In fact, (New) Labour will repeatedly point these facts out as part and parcel of being the opposition to a particularly woeful Coalition of Idiots.

    Yet, at the same time, (New) Labour won’t address *all* the factors that will exacerbate these problems because, as you say yourself, immigration is, apparently, only a concern for far-right racists.

  3. Declan Gaffney says:

    Taboo? Every leadership candidate with the exception of Diane Abbott made immigration central to their narrative of Labour’s election defeat.

    And why do those calling for yet more debate on immigration always frame their arguments with decontextualised, misleading figures on welfare benefits?

    ‘Despite presiding over a decade-long boom, a rising tide did not raise all boats on Labour’s watch, not least among the five million working age adults stuck on benefits. Moreover these people will never find a way off welfare while a steady flow of immigrant labour keeps wages down for those on the bottom tier of our economic pyramid.’

    There aren’t five million adults ‘stuck on’ benefits. Of the 4,750,000 claimants of out of work benefits, 1.3m are on Jobseeker’s allowance, the vast majority of claims for which end within months, even in the current climate. A further 1.3 million are receiving an out of work benefit in combination with Disability Living Allowance,- in other words, they are at the severe end of the spectrum of disability- and another 72,000 are caring for a disabled person. Mixing the consequences of severe disability up with labour market exclusion in order to exaggerate the scale of the latter is a coalition trick which we don’t expect to hear from serious Labour commentators, as is presenting data on all claimants as if it referred only to long-term claimants ‘stuck on benefits’. If we look instead at the 1.9m who are long term (five years or more) 60% are receiving DLA or carer’s allowance.

    And what basis is there for the assertion that ‘these people will never find a way off welfare while a steady flow of immigrant labour keeps wages down for those on the bottom tier of our economic pyramid’? The only areas of out of work benefit receipt that didn’t see major falls from 2002 to the recession were among the disabled and carers: unemployed, lone parent and non-DLA sickness benefits all showed very substantial falls. And seeking to rescue the hypothesis by claiming that without migration caseloads would have fallen even further runs up against the fact that where any impacts of migration on resident employment have been detected, they are marginal compared to other factors that drive labour market exclusion.

    Labour’s migration obsessives need to do a lot more evidence gathering and serious thinking if the debate they want is to be anything other than the trading of uninformed intuitions. Now, what was that about ‘shaking the left out of its intellectual sloth’?

    Spot on on the GLA though.

  4. paul barker says:

    The only tiny little problem with Glasmans thesis is there isnt a shred of evidence to support it. Never mind lots of “ordinary” people “know” its true so who needs rational thought ?
    After decades of using Ethnic Minorities as voting fodder Labour is preparing to use them as scapegoats.

    To add to the dishonesty you pretend that Britain can stay in The EU while abandoning Freedom of Labour, even The Tories dont try that one.

  5. Kevin says:

    James – yes, “fair and unfair”. That’s kind of the point of our politics. Promoting the former, reducing the latter.

  6. Kevin says:

    Declan – thanks for your response – thought provoking as ever on the welfare stuff.

    The point is whether low-skilled working-age people can ever transfer off benefits and into the labour market when wages are kept low through mass immigration. Four out of five new jobs go to foreign-born nationals. One in seven of our total workforce.

    The left needs to understand the role low-cost immigrant labour is having on the livelihoods of poor workers. People are sick and tired of being told they are either wrong in fact or wrong in motive when they raise the issue.

    The bossy left’s assumption (and I don’t aim that one at you Declan) is that concern about immigration is code for altogether baser motives. Patronising and belittling the concerns of our own electors (again, not a personal shot) is a perverse electoral strategy. Many of them made up their minds before the last election and that’s partly why we are where we are.

    We’re almost in danger of having a debate about the issue. And that’s the point – immigration should be treated as a public policy issue, not as a taboo only the truly enlightened can discuss (away from the plebs) at north London dinner parties.

    PS – Glad we’re in unison about the GLA. Couldn’t believe I found that line in their ‘mission statement’. Sums up everything that is wrong. We should have stamped out this squalid little industry rather than facilitate it. Have to say, I have not noticed that a punnet of strawberries is appreciably cheaper than it would have been 15 years ago…

    PPS – Did my point about policy wonks not facing low-cost competition for their roles hit close to home? (That one is aimed at you!)



  7. Kevin says:

    Dear Paul – so immigration isn’t a concern to ordinary people in this country – especially the poorly-paid? Every opinion poll that shows the issue near the top of the electorate’s list of concerns is wrong? This “move along, nothing to see” denialism cripples the left – and shows how far away we often are from the concerns of real people.

    I don’t pretend “Britain can stay in the EU while abandoning freedom of labour”. But
    we got it horrendously wrong in 2004 with the EU’s expansion eastwards. Between 2004-06 we predicted 30,000 immigrant workers and ended up with 420,000. Are you saying that scale of immigrant labour has no effect?

  8. Declan Gaffney says:


    As you know perfectly well, policy wonks who have been in the business for a while do face lower-cost competition for jobs!

    ‘People are sick and tired of being told they are either wrong in fact or wrong in motive when they raise the issue.’ There is a HUGE difference between saying someone is wrong in fact and casting aspersions on their motives (sorry about the caps but your comments box doesn’t allow italics).

    But just how much evidence does it take before the implausibility of the welfare/migration trope is acknowledged? Saying it, however often, won’t make it so. We can’t reasonably attribute wage gaps which widened over decades to recent migration. We can’t say that welfare receipt hasn’t been falling when it has. We can’t afford to indulge in nonsensical statements like ‘four out of five new jobs go to foreign workers’ (believe me, it is nonsense). This isn’t pedantry, it’s about what grounds any debate is going to take place on- should this be on the best (flawed) understanding of what’s been happening in the real world we can muster, or on hunches supported by mutant factoids? If people want to raise questions about migration policy on other grounds, fine- but when figures on labour markets are brought into play, they need to be scrutinised and when necessary challenged.

    And this sort of thing really worries me, because I think that we – by which I mean Labour- should be doing better than this, much better. As a party for which labour markets and the welfare state are of central concern, we should be trying, collectively, to understand what has been happening, not trading intuitions and repeating dodgy statistics. So I’d completely agree that ‘the left needs to understand the role low-cost immigrant labour is having on the livelihoods of poor workers’- starting from the evidence that it isn’t having much effect and then moving on to identify and address the really important contemporary drivers of wage and income inequality.

    The GLA is only part of a long term deeply depressing story of selective government support for labour intensive industries operating at and beyond the margins of accepted labour market practice….. for another time.

  9. Kevin says:

    Declan – its not pedantry, I would accuse you of – its denialism Are you really saying the immigration wave we have seen over the past 15 years has had no effect on the lives of those at the bottom of the pile?

    If you think immigration is an unmitigated social and economic good and can never have a negative effect of on the lives of the working poor, then say so; but a blizzard of statistical verbiage and obfuscatory textual parrying, does not, my friend, an argument make. Time to take off the mortar board and tune into what people are actually telling us is going on in their everyday lives.

    Take the building industry. It is entirely speculative, based on stop/start production, and therefore wage bargaining is done at the level of an individual building site. The increase in eastern European building workers (particularly since 2004) has served to increase competition (at a time when new house building has been running at a post-war low). Building companies are notorious for sweating costs so the cheapest sub-contractors win.

    A big chunk of the remainder of the industry takes place in the black economy and is, almost by definition, statistically unmeasurable. Here again costs and wages are negotiated job to job and competition for domestic building workers has become fierce. An influx of new workers in the sector spells one thing – reduced wages. That is why people are so angry.

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