Comment: Miliband’s immigration agenda is not a lurch to the right

The idea Ed Miliband has no policies is becoming less convincing by the day. Look closely and they are revealed, like a Magic Eye poster. Over the last two days, the Labour leader used a party political broadcast and a speech by his shadow home secretary to unveil a raft of them on immigration. Some of them are good, some of them are unfortunate and some of them are morally questionable, but they show evidence of a party leader thinking honestly through a prickly issue.

Politically, Miliband knows he has to grasp the nettle on immigration. The Labour ministers and MPs who travelled down to Eastleigh reported back that it was constantly raised on the doorstep and probably had a significant bearing on Ukip's surge in the seat. The problem with addressing these concerns is that most of them are erroneous. The mere fact they are being raised in Eastleigh highlights the problem. There basically is no immigration in Eastleigh.

Here, for the record, are some key facts about migration:

  • Migrants are not more likely to commit crimes than ordinary Brits. Of the half a million Polish people in the UK, for instance, just 807 of them are behind bars.
  • Migrants are a net contributor to the economy – but not by much. A Home Office report using 1999-2000 as its data set found a net fiscal contribution of £2.5 billion, with foreign-born residents contributing £31.2 billion in taxes and using benefits and state services valued at £28.8 billion. An IPPR report found the net annual fiscal contribution of foreign born residents was 1.06 – higher than the UK-born value of 1.01. In the four fiscal years following EU enlargement in 2004, migrants from the eight accession countries made a positive contribution to public finances.
  • Even when migrants work in low-wage occupations they tend to be a net gain for the economy. Their labour force participation and employment rates are very high, usually because they come at working age.
  • When migrants are highly skilled they are even better for the UK economy, because we did not spend any money training or educating them, but we do get all the social and tax benefits of their work.
  • Migration boosts spending and demand. The extra numbers increase aggregate demand, so that with the additional supply of labour there also comes an increase in the demand for labour.
  • There is no evidence that increased labour supply from immigration pushes down wages, but it seems extremely likely that it does. Admittedly, massive waves of immigration to the US during the 20th Century were met with rising wages, but a concentration of immigrants in one sector (such as Polish workers in the building sector half way through the last decade) tends to suppress wages, especially where they sidestep union pay negotiations.

These facts put political leaders in dangerous territory, because they suggest fears about migration do not correspond to reality.

Miliband's approach is not perfect, but it is commendably restrained. He has sensibly moved to clamp down on some of the potential for wage suppression. He is demanding more prosecutions for those failing to pay the minimum wage (there hasn't been one for two years). This is a recurrent problem – restaurants pay immigrant staff under the minimum wage then let them make it up on tips. Others pay under minimum wage and tell workers they are keeping the rest as accommodation costs, then settle them in barns or stuffed hostels. Miliband suggests allowing local councils to take over enforcement of the minimum wage. Private sector landlords would be registered to prevent abuse. There will be a push for the upskilling of the domestic population using technical colleges.

The Labour leader also does what he can to stop the problem of ghettoisation. Most London journalists do not properly realise the damage this trend does to the fabric of communities because it is very rare in the capital. But in the cities north of London is has become a problem, with typically Middle Eastern communities settling together, cut off from the wider community. It is not a positive development. However, it is hard to know what to do about it. The only solution is to give the state power over housing – literally allowing it to tell people where to live. That is an intolerable proposal.

There is no easy solution to this problem but Miliband's approach is respectable. Anyone working in state jobs facing the public will be required to speak English. English language teaching will be prioritised over translation services. Will that fix it? No. But it addresses what can be done to encourage integration while avoiding the authoritarian pitfalls of forcing migrants to learn a language or live in a particular area.

But there are worrying measures in Miliband's plan as well. Yvette Cooper, a voice on the right of the Labour party, with a grim steely look about her which corresponds to her political outlook, issued several questionable proposals during her speech this morning. The worst was for EU rules to be changed so citizens are given higher benefits than foreigners from other EU member states. This would be the start of a process which would see the state hand out funds in relation to nationality. It is a uniquely dangerous policy in the tradition of Gordon Brown's 'British jobs for British workers' line. Chances are such a move would require agreement from all member states, putting it in the realm of 'hugely unlikely'. We should be grateful for that.

The shadow home secretary also proposed a habitual residence test for jobseekers' allowance, controls on EU movement after the accession of Bulgaria and Romania and, worst of all, arrest powers for UKBA – easily the most incompetent, heartless and cack-handed division of government. This is rank populism. Migrants do not take up more public services or benefits than the domestic population, so there is no need for it. It is a product of politicians who refused to challenge the propaganda of the tabloid press or the whipped-up over-excitement of Migration Watch.

Nevertheless, the broad thrust of Miliband's programme should be celebrated. He has refused to use the dog-whistle nastiness of Labour when in power. The 'arms race' of ever-increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric, as Cooper described it, is a dangerous thing. It creates tension in our communities and resentment on our streets. It discourages immigrants from feeling at home in – and loyalty for – their adopted country. It makes us look harsh and barren to the outside world. It is a mercy and a cause for celebration that both Miliband and David Cameron have ceased using it.

Miliband's central focus is on the aspect of immigration which is most likely to be detrimental to the poorest people in Britain – wage suppression. Even without evidence of this problem, it is worth adopting his policies on minimum wage and landlords for simple ethical reasons. His limited work on benefits is needless and unfortunate, but it is understandable why a political leader in his position would need to do it. He has managed to keep the left of the party onside while offering concrete proposals for the right, who have long lobbied for a tougher stance on immigration.

Ultimately, the validity of public discomfort with immigration is not the most important issue. As EH Carr observed, we sometimes have to deal with the world as people perceive it, not as it is. Is Miliband lurching to the right? No. Is he addressing right-wing concerns? Yes. Trouble is, if he doesn't talk about it there are plenty more extreme parties who will.

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