In what way is Ed Miliband wrong about immigration?
This morning Ed Miliband made a speech saying that Labour had got it wrong before on immigration.
He told the IPPR:
By focusing exclusively on immigration’s impact on growth, we lost sight of who was benefiting from that growth – whose living standards were being squeezed. We became disconnected from the concerns of working people.
James Kirkup has said, in the opening line of his dispatch, that:
The Labour leader will say that while middle-class households benefited from mass immigration to Britain their working class counterparts suffered.
This focus has resonated with leftist criticisms of Miliband this morning who are accusing him of playing dirty immigration politics and trying to create a them-and-us feeling among the working class.
All the while, the far right are saying Ed is coming round to their thinking.
Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, for example on his Twitter feed has said:
Miliband joins ranks of BNP recruiting sergeants. Legitimation of our message by party that everyone knows is utterly obsessed with migrants and the multi-cult. Public won’t be fooled!
(It took me a couple of times to get what Griffin is saying here, but it is that Miliband is realising the truth, but the public knows he is being insincere because his party is insincere).
But I don’t think those leftist criticisms, or indeed the far right ones, are correct.
Miliband’s main points address employers. Even where he talks about the benefits of Middle-class families against working class ones, he’s not pitching foreigners against natives, just that having an abundance of labour, often cheap labour, is a benefit to the richer in society.
Four of the measures Miliband called for are very interesting:
- Forcing medium and large employers to declare if more than a quarter of their workforce is foreign, so that gaps in training British workers can be addressed, allowing them better to compete
- Banning employment agencies from taking on only overseas workers
- Setting up an early-warning system, run by the Migration Advisory Council, to highlight areas where the workforce is “dominated by low-wage labour from other countries”
- Tougher legislation on the minimum wage, with a doubling of the fine from £5,000 to £10,000 for those who break the law
These should appeal to our leftist sentiments.
A common left wing argument goes that capitalists don’t want full employment so they can keep a section of the capable workforce free in order to drive wages down. Any sign of solidarity arguing for the increase in wages and better working conditions can be combatted by the capitalist class seeking labour elsewhere.
The free movement of labour in the EU, in many ways, follows this logic. And to that end, we have what Miliband today identified as a situation where
If you wanted a conservatory built for your home, you were probably better off. If you were working for a company building conservatories, you probably weren’t.
We had this argument in 2009 with the Lindsey oil refinery workers. The Unite union claimed that ‘the Italian firm IREM, a subcontractor at the Lindsey plant, had exclusively hired Italian labour – a practice the union said was spreading across the construction sector.’
This was a clear undercutting of the existing workforce – and as Unite noted, was becoming commonplace in this sector.
We had a left wing argument then – but we are choosing to ignore its application today.
As Miliband said today, immigration is being discussed in “every kitchen”. These discussions often take place when labour activists are knocking on doors, and when the conversation comes up we tend to buckle.
We need a Labour narrative that addresses situations like the Lindsey oil refinery workers. It’s not xenophobic, but just look at the reaction it has caused on Twitter. It’s almost as if you can’t talk about immigration today without getting your ear chewed.