Ed Miliband will give a speech on immigration later today, marking out the territory on which he plans to engage those voters who feel that their communities and livelihoods are under threat from migrant workers. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, prepared the ground for Miliband earlier this week by echoing her husband’s sentiments about the need for greater control of economic migration from eastern Europe. The Labour leadership insists that the Blair government was wrong to waive transition controls in 2004, when many former Soviet republics acceded to the EU.
Labour stress that this is not a ‘British jobs for British workers’ speech, but, rather, it aims to start a discussion about how the playing field might be levelled for British workers. Ahead of today’s speech, Miliband gave an interview to the Guardian in which he said:
‘Overall, immigration has benefits, but the thing we did not talk about was its relevance to class, and the issue of where the benefits and burdens lie. If you need a builder, it is good that there are more coming into the country and lowering the price of construction, but if you are a British builder it is less beneficial.’
Guided by the hand of Jon Cruddas (his new policy director), and by the sound of things Ed Balls, Miliband has several proposals. The maximum transition controls should be adopted for all future EU accessions, the minimum wage should be enforced. Employment agencies that only keep Poles or Czechs or whoever on their books should be regulated. Immigrants’ access to benefits should be reviewed, and so forth.
The casual observer might suspect that these are superficial fixes for an entrenched malaise. On transitional controls, it’s all very well being wise after the event. On the minimum wage, why pursue costly enforcement of an arbitrary wage when reinvigorated trade unions might be able to negotiate fair and flexible wages for their members to compete with cheap foreign labour (a point made by Denis MacShane in an article in defence of the centre-left think tank Progress)? Why regulate exclusionist agencies when you might train the indigenous workforce and therefore widen the market?
Delve deeper into Miliband’s analysis and more problems emerge. He told the Guardian:
‘We have to confront the fact you cannot address people’s concerns about immigration unless you change the way the economy works… It is the short-term, fast-buck culture that is at the root of this, so we have to look at what incentives we can give companies so they do not rely on a pool of short-term temporary labour that will come to this country and go away again.’
Would incentives for business be desirable and sufficient? Miliband’s ‘short-term, fast-buck culture’ does not cohere with the testimony of SME business leaders (a permanent fixture on TV news discussion programmes these days), who say that they hire foreign labour because it is more productive and skilled than the ill-educated and demotivated ranks of British unemployed. The facts are plain, as Fraser repeats ad infinitum, the vast bulk of new jobs created in Britain since the beginning of the last decade have been taken by foreign born workers. Meanwhile, workless man hands on misery to workless man. Opportunity and hope recede from some communities, and want and ignorance thrive in their place. Social divisions deepen. The situation is much more complicated than the simplistic picture of cowboy Polish builders versus honest British brickies. Mass immigration cannot be blamed on short-termism alone.