Finally, Labour seems to be getting it on immigration

by Kevin Meagher

My dad’s just turned 67. Like many people these days, he’s still working. But he’s not sat in a cushy office hunched over a laptop; he’s up on a scaffold, or knee-deep in mud and clay in the footings of a house.

He’s a bricklayer; and still finds himself out in all-weather doing the job he’s been doing for 50 years. He can’t afford to retire. When you work in a speculative industry your pay goes down as well as up. In a non-unionised industry, the rate is under constant negotiation.  In the 1960’s and 70s it was a good job – paying well above average earnings.

During the 1980s, two biting Tory recessions wiped out construction. Try saving for retirement when you’re not earning enough; keeping the wolf from the door is the name of the game. So work on he must.

That’s partly because the past decade hasn’t been much better for construction workers either. Even during Labour’s boom, the wealth didn’t trickle down to people like him. There were two crushing forces at work: the Labour government’s general failure to build enough homes and the impact of low-cost immigrant labour, following the accession of the Visegrad countries to the EU in 2004.

The first issue is well chronicled – and indeed championed by the Left. Construction of new homes dropped to a post-war low under Labour. Having fallen by two thirds since the heyday of the 1960s, just 156,170 houses were built in 1997-8. By 2009-10, this had nearly halved to just 88,690. Not enough houses mean not enough jobs and flat pay.

Of the second issue – immigration – you will hear ne’er a squeak.

There’s been a self-denying ordinance in even talking about the issue for as long as I can remember. Like actors who won’t say the name of “the Scottish play” for fear of bad luck, the centre-left has been utterly mute on the subject of immigration for years.

Of course there is a familiar form of words about ‘valuing the contribution immigrants make’ but no discourse on the other impacts. The downsides must remain unspoken; such is the paranoia about feeding the far right.

So Ed Miliband’s speech was hugely significant, if only for its topic. Stacked full of caveats and careful formulations, he did, however, manage to throw off the veil that “worrying about immigration, talking about immigration, thinking about immigration” does not make people bigoted (“not in any way”). People are simply “anxious about the future” he said.

Indeed they are; and this speech was long overdue from a Labour leader. In large part because there is a big chunk of Labour’s traditional working class base that the party – and the trade unions – simply don’t understand anymore.

The largely non-unionised, casualised, peripatetic world of the £90bn construction industry is a prime example. It employs more than two million people and contributes 7 per cent to GVA but its highly cost-sensitive, so reducing labour costs through using cheaper foreign workers was a boon to the big construction companies.

Toughening up on employer abuses in the labour market so that cheaper immigrant alternatives are not as attractive a prospect (“so that we can build our economy so that it works for working people”) is music to the ears of many hard-pressed British workers like my Dad.

Not all agree, however. The reaction in some quarters to Ed Miliband’s speech was predictably sour.  Talking about immigration, even in the context of the failures of the labour market, is falling for the “myths of misanthropes” according to The Independent ‘s Ian Birrell.

The former Cameron speechwriter turned columnist, claimed that: “A series of recent studies [none named] has shown the wave of migration under the last Labour government had no impact on unemployment, even among the least skilled. Nor did it significantly depress wages.”

Yet wage bargaining in the construction sector is usually done on the basis of building site to building site, or, worse still, actually takes place hidden away from academic number-crunchers in our £200 billion black economy – where there are simply no statistics to gather.

In making his case – and in the predictable responses to it – Ed Miliband exposes the three distinct views on immigration.

The first is that of the traditional nationalist who which sees immigration as inherently damaging to national identity and cohesion. This is articulated by the nostalgics of the Daily Mail through to the bigots of the BNP. It was not surprising, therefore, to see voices as diverse as Migrationwatch and Nick Griffin welcome Ed’s speech.

The second is, if I can call it this, the liberal middle-class view. I don’t mean that to sound too pejorative. Liberal is the correct term. Adherents see immigration as inherently good: socially and economically; let it be. Immigration brings benefits in terms of cultural plurality, but it has big financial pluses too for the owner-occupier. It means cut-price landscape gardeners and cheap builders, holding out the prospect of suddenly affordable loft conversions and garage extensions.

The third viewpoint is that of the traditional social democrat. This is the ground Labour should always have occupied on immigration, but foolishly abandoned, before people like Maurice Glasman, Jon Cruddas and now Ed Miliband rediscovered it. Immigration can have its benefits, sure, but there are impacts too.

If the impact is to see harsher competition for jobs or homes then there is a downside for the people now facing this extra competition. Of course its people like my Dad – and millions like him – who sees the sharp end of it. I’ve not noticed any of the liberal middle-class pontificators at The Independent losing their jobs to eager – and cheaper – Polish journalists of late.

For liberals, even discussing immigration outside the confines of its all-round wonderfulness is heresy. It simply eggs on the BNP we are always told. Debate must be shut down.

Hence, commentators like The Independent’s Owen Jones mutter darkly that talking about the “myth” of immigration having downsides will “simply fuel the sense that people from other countries are responsible for society’s ever-growing ills.”

For social democrats there is a real, genuine downside that should be discussed and remedied. Ed Miliband has served – at long last – to validate this argument. Some good old fashioned dirigisme in re-regulating the labour market to end workplace abuses is long overdue. As he pointed out in his speech, just seven employers have ever been prosecuted for not paying the minimum wage.

To deprecate the downsides of mass immigration is not to tread the same ground as traditional nationalists. The issue is not about nostalgia, but concern at the hard, bottom-line impact on standards of living and life chances for many ordinary people. This should be Labour’s natural territory.

And this is not a question about the ‘perception’ of immigration. Labour has been in breach of contract with many of its core voters. Some of those abandoning Labour last time around were simply acting in their rational self-interest by rejecting a policy that was never put in any manifesto and was pursued, blindly, by a party supposedly on their side.

Not great terrain for a self-styled people’s party to find itself occupying. But voters will listen about the benefits of immigration if politicians will be honest about the problems that come with it.

If Ed’s speech signals that the party’s social democratic tradition, rather than its liberal impulses, now holds sway, we might just get that hearing.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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4 Responses to “Finally, Labour seems to be getting it on immigration”

  1. Nick says:

    You’re wrong on several points, and you’ve missed out a major one.

    1. Migrants coming here largely have get up and go. Almost everyone admires that.

    2. The left then assumes because they are working it must be a benefit economically. Complete twaddle, a sign of dumbing down of education.

    Unless they pay more tax on average, per migrant for their entire time here than the government spends per person on average, then its not good for the UK. That threshold is 40K income per migrant, and they pay tax. Government spending 11K per person.

    That test fails in most cases.

    Secondly, if you import cheap labour, you need to include the benefit bill of those they compete against one the plus and minus side. You’ve not done that.

    You’ve not said what happens now. What happens to fix the mess you’ve created. I suspect you might say, less future migration, but we have to keep those here, even though they are a negative on balance. Why the omission?

    So Labour has shafted large parts of society by migration. Still small compared to the real crime, which is 230,000 of debt per taxpayer. [You do think that the pensions debts should be paid, don’t you?]

    As for the manifestos, they are littered with broken promises. Then there are lots of policies no one was told about.

    The Greeks have it right. If it was kept secret, if you weren’t asked, you aren’t responsible for the mess. Hence they aren’t going to pay tax and get no services. Better off paying no tax and getting no services in return.

  2. WitteringsfromWitney says:

    It is a tad disingenuous of Ed Miliband to talk about immigration when the government of which he was a member was funding the Global Forum for Migration and Development (GFMD) since its inception in 2007. the sole aim of the GFMD was to promote immigration as a means to diminish any sense of nationality that an indigenous population by nature has.

    As with all politicians, Ed Miliband is guilty of lying to the British people by omissions – how can any fact-based debate on immigration be held, which is what he wants, when politicians act thus?

    It is ironic that the anti-spam filter asks which former Labour Prime Minister’s name rhymes with ‘bear’. the person concerned was a b liar too!

  3. vern says:

    Firstly, keep it short and simple and that way you might get your point across better.
    Secondly, and more worryingly is the totally opposed views that you and Tories have on immigration. How can you differ so much?
    The Tories want less non EU influx and you think we had too much from the EU and would welcome more non EU!

    Personally, i have always felt that we do not mind hardworking souls who contribute regardless of origin. And as long as we have a system that protects our own when the chips are down via working visas and the like this should have been easily managed.

    Some statistics suggest that 5million poured in during Labour’s watch and the cynic in me suggests that the vast majority may not work very hard, may have found their way to the benefit’s system and by way of a thank-you will always vote Labour.
    The same statistics also suggest 80% were non-EU and 1.6m people were granted permanent right of residence, mainly from developing countries.

    And there was me thinking you had the British workers interests at heart!


  4. Les Abbey says:

    Ed Miliband’s speech was long overdue from a Labour leader. That immigration was, as he said, a class issue and had at times held down the wages of the poorest, least skilled part of our population. Not my phrase, but one I agree with is that the minimum often becomes the maximum wage.

    What Ed left out was the effect on skilled trades that your father’s example shows. Whether it’s the bricklayer, the plumber or the electrician, pressure has been put on the wages by skilled immigration from Eastern Europe. (I know that ‘once upon in Maggie’s time’ German tradesmen were probably also making the same complaints about skilled British immigrants.) I can only suppose that Ed didn’t touch upon this point because it brings into play the question of free movement of labour inside the EU, and our position in the EU itself.

    The problem for London middle-class in the Westminster bubble is that immigration supplies much of they want. Cheap staff to serve them in their restaurants and clubs, maids and cleaners for their homes and offices, and a plentiful supply of rent boys and prostitutes for their sexual gratification.

    And when you call for a Yellow Pages electrician or plumber, they will be there in minutes and do the job at half the price it used to be, and you can pass on a recommendation to your friends about the helpful young Pole or whoever who did such a great job. Maybe we should bring in our political class from overseas also, just to make it fair of course.

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