By Greg Dash
Articles on immigration and Labour policy often begin with an opening line stating how immigration is an 'awkward subject' for us in the Labour Party. But it doesn't have to be. This 'awkwardness' is a consistent reminder of Labour's lack of courage in developing its own narrative around the issue.
During an interview on Newsnight this week, Owen Smith discussed immigration and some of its challenges. When asked if there were too many immigrants in Britain, he said:
"It depends where you are. In some places the way in which we saw rapid influx of in particular eastern European migrants after the accession of those countries to Europe definitely caused downward pressure on wages, definitely caused changes to local terms and conditions to some workers in some sectors."
When asked further questions on how he would respond to an increase in the number of migrants relocating to Britain, he noted that this "influx of, effectively, cheap labour" helped our economy bounce back after the recession. He then asked: "Should we want that? It has some economic advantages no doubt about that - what's it doing to squeeze people out of those jobs?" He then repeated the often-stated need to be 'more honest' with the British public.
As with most issues recently, the response from Labour members was divided. Some saw his comments as dog whistle politics, whilst others saw it as Labour engaging with the issues that voters care about. The latter seeing the need for concessions on some issues in order to win over swing voters and get into power. Indeed, Kezia Dugdale in the Guardian, noted this as one of Jeremy Corbyn’s weaknesses. "He's deeply driven by his principles and wanting to do the right thing," she said. "He won’t compromise them in order to be in government and he doesn't think that he needs to."
When it comes to immigration, there's little reason to believe that we will fare better with the electorate if we concede our principles and attempt to emulate our opposition. Instead, Labour needs to have the courage to take a stand and stop reproducing a false narrative that breeds hate and xenophobia.
The data on immigration is on our side. Research from the Bank of England has shown that it is true that there has been an increase in the number of people who immigrate to the UK and take up lower paid work (eg. cleaners, machine operators, labourers). But in contrast to Smith's assertion that migration 'definitely' caused downward pressure on wages, the study finds that impacts are minimal. Immigration is indeed found to have an impact on lower paid occupations, but a ten per cent increase in the total foreign-born population is required to produce a 1.5p decrease/per pound in average wages. This figure is based on the assumption that British born individuals' labour is more highly valued (and so is priced at a higher value), and takes into consideration regional distribution and variation in immigration across the UK.
Despite this minimal impact from immigration on wages, average pay has dropped to record lows with median pay in the UK still worth £2,270 less in real terms than it was in 2008. People are angry, frustrated and struggling to get by - and the only explanation they are given directs the responsibility away from the Tory policy makers responsible for this failure.
The election failure of 2015 taught us the dangers of conceding to a narrative set down by the Tories. But instead of attacking the government on this, some have argued that in order to be electable we need to help them deflect the blame onto a sector of the British population which includes some of the most marginalised and vulnerable members of society.
This warning is not new, indeed Dan Hodges in 2010 criticised the move of Labour away from its progressive roots to trying to ape the rhetoric of the right. In an article in Labour Uncut, Hodges recalls a comment from a Conservative shadow minister asking: "Does Peter Mandelson really think he can make the Conservative party look weak on immigration? If you keep talking up the issue, the only winners will be us and the BNP".
At it's worst, this approach has gone as far as to propose that Labour should be "a party that brokers a common good, that involves those people who support the EDL within our party"
Instead of scapegoating individuals (such as the Eastern Europeans noted by Smith) to keep votes out of the hands of Ukip, we need to deploy our energies to constructing a serious plan for addressing the concerns that people bring to us on the doorstep. A plan that looks at the underlying issues that emerge in these conversations on immigration: the legacies of de-industrialisation, the absence of affordable housing, increasing job insecurity and zero hour work, and the impacts of neoliberalism on the national institutions that make up our shared identity.
Labour needs to build a positive case around these precious public institutions, industries that Britain created, that Labour created. We need a plan for social security reform, stronger protection for workers and a repeal of the trade union act, and a wide review on workers rights, a real living wage, investment in local services, and reversing Tory cuts to policing.
And we need to stop engaging in a narrative that blames voters for Tory failures in managing our economy and for ideological budget cuts that have stretched our public services to breaking point.The left are good at diagnosing problems, but too often we shy away from pitching solutions.
There are many myths around immigration that are believed by some members of the electorate - but we are just as unlikely to win favour by telling people that they are wrong as we are by adopting Tory-lite policy. There will always be a party that can blame immigrants more than us – but as the general public have recently found out from the EU referendum, these promises are soon broken.
It is not enough to show how Tory austerity has threatened the security of families and communities – we need to create a positive narrative that sets us apart from the cynicism and individualism that dominates current political discourse. And we need to take seriously the absence of belonging and alienation felt by working class people by providing more opportunities for meaningful political participation.
Admittedly, with the recent rise in right-wing populism this does not appear to be an easy task. But like the generations of the Labour party before us – only our courage will give Britain the courage to change.
Greg Dash is deputy editor of Anticipations, the Young Fabians magazine. The forthcoming issue of Anticipations discusses some of the issues in this piece, exploring the relationship between national identity and the Labour movement. He tweets at @greglabour.
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