Labour’s immigration Policy: A Progressive Perspective
by Joe Walters
Thu 5th Feb 2015
Immigration, and how the parties claim they will control it, is one of a handful of issues that will be pivotal in swaying swing voters either right or left in this year’s general election. The dissatisfaction with both Labour’s and the Conservative’s efforts to curtail immigration, particularly from poorer areas of the European Union, has resulted in the anti-Europe UKIP gaining widespread support across the country, threatening to take seats from both major parties. The reaction to the rise of UKIP has been imitation, with the Conservatives promising a referendum on EU membership in the next parliament and Labour adopting a new “tough and fair ” stance on immigration.
What does Labour’s new “tough and fair” stance involve? A quick look at their proposed policies is all that is needed to realise the answer to this question is nothing. This “tough” stance on immigration is devoid of content, and therefore fails to engage with the concerns people have on the issue.
The first promise by Milliband and co is that under Labour we will see stronger border controls. The reality is that there is only so much you can do to stop people crossing the border illegally. Also illegal immigration is not the biggest concern of the ordinary voter. What people are worried about is immigration from the European economic area, and even a 50-foot wall and militarisation of all UK borders would do nothing to prevent EU citizens from exercising their right to find work in the UK. The second proposal is that “people coming here won’t be able to claim benefits for at least two years”. This policy is based on two myths, and aims to placate the more extreme factions of the anti-immigration movement. The first myth is the mistaken belief that EU residents can come to the UK and immediately claims benefits. European citizens must pass a habitual residence test in order to show they are looking for work and not here purely to free ride of our welfare state. The second myth is that benefit tourism of this type is actually a problem. A research paper on the fiscal benefits of immigration released by UCL last year, found that between the years 2001-2011 EU migrants paid 20 billion more in taxes than they received through entitlements. It is no mystery as to why Labour has based policy on these false premises. This is a concerted effort to appear to be as tough as UKIP on immigration, but the majority of voters concerned by the issue will see through this contemptuous ploy.
The new proposals also include a pledge to prevent employers exploiting immigrants by undercutting wages. This is the only attempt to actually tackle the main detrimental effect of mass immigration, which is the downward pressure it places on wages. However this, like the rest of the party’s new stance, is nothing but superficial political posturing. There has been no explanation as to how a Labour government will be more effective in preventing employers paying migrant workers below the minimum wage than any previous government.
Labour’s new proposals for controlling immigration are an offence to anyone who possesses the literacy skills to read them. They have succumbed to the populist demands for tighter immigration controls without actually engaging with the issues that the anti-immigration movement is based on. Also by adopting such a superficial stance they have left themselves open for their political opponents to point out that their allegedly tough stance on immigration will do nothing to reduce the number of Europeans who can enter the country. Due to the free movement of workers, the only way to truly control immigration would be to leave the EU. Labour may have imitated some of the rhetoric of UKIP, but not the policies.
Is it actually possible for Labour to engage with people's concerns over immigration in a way that is compatible with its progressive values? The reality is that for many on the left an admission of any concern with immigration is abhorrent and based on xenophobia and bigotry. The advocates of this view point to facts such as immigrants from the EU paying more in taxes than they have received from the welfare state, to prove that those who have concerns with the high levels of migrants entering the UK must be motivated by a simple dislike of foreigners. This misses the point. Just because immigration has been beneficial to the government's balance sheet does not mean it has not had adverse effects for a substantial amount of the population. One such adverse effect may be that large flows of immigration, and subsequent increased labour market competition, are partly responsible for the decline in wage growth for the British people.
Source: Office for National Statistics: An Examination of Falling Real Wages, 2010 - 2013
Figure 1 shows the decline in real wage growth from the 1970s, the same decade the UK joined the EU. We also have to consider that the modest rises in wages during these decades are probably due to the large rises in income that top earners have experienced. This suggests that real wages for large parts of the working and middle class may have stagnated or even decreased. Incidentally another UCL research paper on the subject of immigration and wages has found that it is unskilled workers wages who have been hit hardest during this period.
To what extent can the downward pressure on wages, particularly for low-skilled and unskilled workers, be attributed to immigration? The biggest reason for the stagnation of wages is most likely the effect globalisation has had on the labour market. With firms able to operate in China, India and the former Soviet Union, around 1.5 billion workers were added to the world economy in the latter decades of the 20th century. To add to this, from the 1970s onwards we also see the percentage of GDP that goes to manufacturing drop from around 40% to just 13% by 2013, which will have a big effect on the wages and the opportunities of low skilled workers as there are less prospects for them in a service sector dominated economy. The Labour party therefore should take peoples concerns over immigration seriously. With wages stagnating and opportunities diminishing for many, it is understandable that they will not be thrilled by the idea of immigration increasing labour market competition further.
So what should a party that claims to be “for the many” do about immigration? Most commentators would claim there are only two options, a slide into protectionism or a complete acceptance of globalisation in its current form. The problem with protectionism is that even if we assume it would lead to a rise in wages for the average Brit, depriving the poor workers of countries like Poland and Bulgaria the opportunity to earn a living in order to protect our own relatively well off workers, seems to fly in the face of the progressive values that the Labour party stands for. The second choice is for the UK public to simply accept free movement of workers as a corollary of free trade and capital. The problem with this view is that it sees globalisation as a monolithic natural force that shouldn’t be tampered with, instead of something that can be moulded to meet the needs of a particular nation. It appears to me that the current debate on economic integration across countries and continents is characterised by a lack of imagination. For those of you who believe not only can globalisation work for the many and not the few, but that it has to, innovative thinkers like Joseph Stiglitz and Roberto Unger are starting to envision alternatives and I would encourage you to read their work.
There are also practical measures that could be taken in the short term to ensure the benefits of immigration are felt more widely. For example, the 20 billion pounds that immigrants added to the government purse could be used to help the unskilled workers, most adversely affected, acquire the skills and training necessary for them to participate more productively in a knowledge economy. Of course this will not be easy, but the first step is viewing the problem and the solution as inextricably interlinked with other issues that concern the British public, such as living standards and social mobility.Some may claim that voters would not react well to a move away from the typical approach of parties bickering over singular issues, but I would contest that it is this cynicism that has prevented the Labour party from gaining the support needed to win the upcoming election outright.
In an episode of the US TV series The Network, Jeff Daniels' character asks a progressive “If liberals are so fuckin' smart, how come they lose so goddam always”. The answer may be because they treat the public like idiots, and the Labour Party are better than anyone at this. Labour may well end up in power after the election with the help of a coalition agreement, but after five years in opposition they have failed to convince the working and middle classes that they would fare better under their leadership than under a Conservative party who are blinded by a religious belief in shrinking the state and unrestrained markets. They need to stop treating the electorate with such contempt and lay out the blueprint for a real progressive alternative. They could start by levelling with us on immigration.